The United Arab Emirates is developing its own space program with an initial goal of sending a probe to Mars in 2020. The question arises, why would an oil-rich Persian Gulf country want a space program? Slate explains that two excellent reasons exist, which applies to other nations as well.

The first reason is economic. The rulers of the U.A.E. have concluded that oil is increasingly a fragile basis on which to base an economy. They only have Russia and Venezuela to look to as examples, which have seen their economies suffer as the price of oil plummeted.

So the idea is the shift from an oil-based economy to a technology based one.

Space is a distinct component of a technology economy. Having a space program, as the United States found out in the wake of the Apollo program, fosters innovation throughout sectors of the economy beyond space, spurring economic growth and job creation. The U.A.E. is pursuing a strategy of both public and commercial investment in space to help nurture this phenomenon.

The second reason is education, or perhaps more precisely inspiring youth to pursue careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. There is a huge marketing component to the U.A.E.’s space program, getting people excited about the prospect of exploring space.

The education aspect includes changes to curriculum and even sending young people to space camps. The strategy seems to be working. A lot of kids in the U.A.E. want to be astronauts now.

The United States noted a similar phenomenon during the Apollo program, which inspired a lot of young people to study science and engineering.

The development of that kind of talent has had a ripple effect throughout the economy, creating human capital skilled in solving problems in a variety of areas.

The U.A.E.’s strategy for using a space program to change its economy and promote education contains lessons for the United States. A well-funded NASA, with a clear direction, would have enormous benefits along the lines that the oil-rich Arab country is pursuing for the United States. For instance, the notion of closing NASA’s education department might need to be reconsidered. Indeed, education outreach programs at the space agency might need to be expanded and not cut back.