Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 October 2019

First glimpse of the rocket that will take Emirati astronaut Hazza to space

In a remote Russian-run space base in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz carrier is unveiled to the world

Related: 11 fun facts about the mission to ISS

The first stage of a journey to carry an Emirati astronaut to space began with the capsule's three-hour ride on the back of a train and a spectacular sunrise over rural Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz-FG carrier was unveiled to television crews and journalists near Baikonur Cosmodrome as it trundled along tracks at the start of its mission to the International Space Station.

He's got 12 to 15 hour days there - a very tight schedule. He's very excited

Salem Al Marri, UAE Astronaut Programme

The day began just after dawn on Monday, as the first rays of sun flooded across the vast empty steppes that surround the space base.

At exactly 7am and with the blast of an air horn, the Soyuz-FG emerged into the sunlight from its assembly hangar, pulled by a diesel transporter train.

It moved at walking pace as it made its way to Gagarin's Start, the launch pad that that took the first human to space

in 1961.

The UAE's Major Hazza Al Mansouri will follow in Yuri Gagarin’s footsteps when he is strapped in to Soyuz MS-15 and blasted into space just before 6pm UAE time on Wednesday, September 25.

Nearly 50 meters long, the first thing that could be seen were the 20 engines of the main ascent stage, fresh in a coat of red paint.

In two days they will fire simultaneously, lifting the three crew into Earth orbit.

"I feel excited, this has been two and a half, three years coming to what is a very exciting culmination," Salem Al Marri, head of the UAE Astronaut Programme, told The National at the site.

"Seeing the rocket rolled out and then stabilised and erected on the launchpad - the rocket is ready, the Soyuz capsule inside is ready, and we're ready as well."

The space chief met with Maj Al Mansouri on Sunday and said he was looking forward to the launch.

"He's doing great. I'm very happy that we have Hazza going up there because he's the right person for the mission," Mr Al Marri said.

Watching the unveiling was a large crowd of space enthusiasts, media, officials and family and friends of the crew, who include the Russian commander Oleg Skripochka, and American astronaut Jessica Meir.

The astronauts were missing though. It is considered bad luck for them to witness the rocket’s trip to the launch pad.

Instead, tradition demands that they go for a haircut - one of many unconventional rituals at Baikonur.

As it moved along the track, the Soyuz seemed dwarfed against the huge blue sky and seemingly endless Kazakhstan desert of scrub and sand.

But the rocket is one of the sturdiest and most reliable ever built, designed by Russian scientists in the 1960s for the Soviet Union and still flying from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, now leased from the independent Republic of Kazakhstan.

The Emirati, Russian and American flags fly as the Soyuz rocket stands in its vertical take-off position. James Langton / The National
The Emirati, Russian and American flags fly as the Soyuz rocket stands in its vertical take-off position. James Langton / The National

Even in late September there was a chill in the morning air, although nothing to the deep freeze of a Kazakh winter. But the sturdy Soyuz flies in all weather and all months of the year.

Just before 10am, the train and cargo finally eased to the edge of the launchpad. The UAE's flag flew proudly alongside Russian and American flags.

The final raising of the Soyuz into its launch position was watched by more than 100 spectators. It was at this exact spot, on April 12, 1961, that Yuri Gagarin took off to become the first man in space.

Nearly 60 years ago, Maj Al Mansouri will follow in his footsteps to become the first Emirati and only the third Arab to leave the bounds of Earth.

The journey will mark the last time Gagarin’s Start is used. The launchpad cannot accommodate the new generation of Soyuz rockets and its future remains uncertain.

On Monday, it performed flawlessly, a huge hydraulic arm lifting the rocket through 90 degrees until it stood upright and vertical. Finally, the launchpad arms swung up to cradle the ship for its final 48 hours on Earth.

If there are no delays, the Emirati astronaut will arrive at the ISS about midnight on Wednesday local time or early on Thursday.

Major Al Mansouri will spend eight days on the station before returning to Earth with the outgoing crew.

While on board he will give a video tour of the station for millions of Arabic speakers on the ground. He will also conduct experiments, host a live question and answer session and treat his crewmates to a traditional Emirati meal.

"He's got 12 to 15 hour days there - a very tight schedule - so he knows what he's going to be doing," said Mr Al Marri.

"He's very confident and he's very excited."

The space programme chief said the short mission wsas only the beginning for the UAE's space ambitions.

Does he see a second Emirati astronaut or more heading into space soon?

"That's something we're working on currently," he said. "That second mission is the mission that's possibly more important than the first one."

He added that the first trip into space will have shown that the astronaut programme was sustainable and that "we've continued to have a presence in lower earth orbit".

What happens next?

The launch

The astronauts will have a final opportunity to speak to their families in the hours before launch from behind a thick wall of glass.

They will then board the Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan two hours before getting clearance for take-off, at 5.56pm UAE time.

They will travel about 400km to the ISS, arriving at around midnight. However, they will have to wait for two hours after docking before being allowed to open the hatch.

This is to ensure that both mission control and the ISS are satisfied that the docking is secure.

The role of Maj Al Mansouri on the Soyuz spacecraft will be that of second flight engineer to Jessica Meir and Oleg Skripochka.

Once the launch has taken place, Dr Al Neyadi’s part in the mission will have concluded, unless he is called upon to take the place of his fellow countryman.

TOPSHOT - This handout photo released by NASA shows The Soyuz MS-13 rocket launch with Expedition 60 Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov of Roscosmos, flight engineer Drew Morgan of NASA, and flight engineer Luca Parmitano of ESA (European Space Agency), Saturday, July 20, 2019 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Skvortsov, Morgan, and Parmitano launched at 12:28 p.m. Eastern time (9:28 p.m. Baikonur time) to begin their mission to the International Space Station. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / NASA /Joel Kowsky " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP / NASA / NASA / Joel KOWSKY / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / NASA /Joel Kowsky " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Soyuz MS-13 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 20. Joel Kowsky / AFP / Nasa

About Soyuz-MS 15

The Russian Soyuz MS 15 spacecraft is made up of three parts. The first is an orbital unit that includes facilities for astronauts to sleep, eat and use the toilet. It also contains a storage area and the docking unit.

The second part contains the landing unit, where astronauts sit during take-off and landing, and it is the part responsible for controlling the spacecraft.

And the section includes a propulsion unit containing fuel and Soyuz vehicle engines.

At the ISS

Maj Al Mansouri will conduct 16 scientific experiments throughout his mission. Six of these will be conducted in microgravity, aboard the ISS, the results of which will be compared with those done on earth.

The reaction of the human body to space will be studied before and after the trip. It will be the first time this kind of research has been done on an astronaut from the region.

The effect of microgravity on the growth of cells, micro-organisms and genes, seed germination rates, fungi, algae, antibiotics on bacteria, and basic chemical reactions in space will also be tested.

Maj Al Mansouri will also examine time perception in microgravity using VR glasses, through pre-set exercises to measure time perception and speed in space compared to perception on Earth.

And finally he will present a tour of the station in Arabic for viewers back on Earth. He will also document the daily lives of astronauts at the station.

Updated: September 24, 2019 02:45 PM

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