It felt like half the country was holding its breath. The delicate parachute floated down against a dusty blue sky, holding the lives of three astronauts in its taut strings. Hazza Al Mansoori returning to Earth, after eight days and approximately 128 orbits of the globe. The Emirati fighter pilot is the UAE’s first astronaut, and the first Arab to set foot on the International Space Station.
His landing on the Kazakh steppes was perfect. The former fighter pilot emerged from the Soyuz spacecraft grinning broadly. As his crew covered him with an Emirati flag, he gave the thumbs-up sign to the cameras.
Only one short year ago, Al Mansoori and his back-up Sultan Al Neyadi were just military men. Then Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai announced the start of the astronaut programme on Twitter.
More than 4,000 men and women applied, and eventually father-of-four Al Mansoori was picked along with Al Neyadi as a back-up. They immediately started an intensive training programme at Star City in Russia, rebuffing any suggestions of space tourism. “Normally astronauts train for five years,” Al Neyadi explains, “But this was accelerated. It has been really tough.” “It was hard to digest,” adds Al Mansoori. “The Soyuz spacecraft is all in Russian. All the buttons… the first time I sat down…it is like alien letters. [I asked myself] how can I learn all of this?”
While in space Al Mansoori carried out experiments on bone condition, body composition and the effect of space flight on the endocrine system, while keeping up a running commentary on social media about his experiences. One night he dressed up in the traditional white kandoora paired with a white ghutra, and served his fellow crew members Emirati speciality dishes for dinner. Apparently the balaleet, madrooba and saloona went down well with the other astronauts.
A few days after he landed in Kazakhstan, Al Mansoori faced the media. “I learned a lot during those eight days,” he said, looking fresh and fit after his extraordinary mission. “Now, my mission is to transfer this experience and the whole knowledge I got from the training here in Star City, and onboard the station to the next person. And I hope he will do it better than me.”
Knowledge transfer has always been a key strategy of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), which is the nerve centre of the UAE’s space activity. It started with their satellite programme in 2006, when a group of Emirati engineers travelled to South Korea to learn the know-how of spacecraft. Only 12 years later, those same scientists launched their own 100 per cent made-in-the-UAE satellite, Dubai Sat1.
The country’s space programme has developed exponentially since those days, and shows no sign of slowing down. There are the satellites; Dubai Sat 2 and KhalifaSat; there is the Emirates Mars Mission; which plans to send a probe named Hope to the Red Planet in 2020, and there is the 2117 Mars project; which is the UAE’s plan to build a city on Mars. Al Mansoori even hinted of a bigger astronaut programme in his final tweet from the International Space Station, “We are about to undock… We are not done yet, and we will never be. To bring back the golden era of Arab astronauts.”
Space is an expensive and ambitious field for a country of less than 10 million people. It has a high risk reward ratio, although so far the MBRSC has seen very few failures. The UAE’s fourth reconnaissance satellite, the Falcon Eye 1 was lost, after the Vega rocket propelling it into space suffered a “major anomaly”, but Falcon Eye 2 is due to be launched by the end of the year. The Hope Probe is a riskier enterprise, with a greater chance of something going wrong.
But the astronaut programme has been a huge success, turning Al Mansoori and Al Neyadi into instant celebrities, and capturing the imagination of young Emiratis. Dozens of teenagers crowded into a recent event organised by the MBRSC, where they took part in workshops on the Hope Probe. One of the youngsters, Noor, explained her enthusiasm, “The astronaut programme and the Mars Mission inspire our generation. I hope in the future to be a part of it.”
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