Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

From 4,000 hopefuls down to one: How the first Emirati astronaut won his place in the history books

Hazza Al Mansouri has undergone a gruelling journey to secure his seat on the International Space Station and help turn the dreams of a nation into reality

In just a few short months, Hazza Al Mansouri will rocket into the record books as the first Emirati to go to space.

September 25 will be the landmark day when the 34-year-old will etch his name in UAE folklore for the start of an eight-day mission aboard the International Space Station.

It is the realisation of a dream, not for just one man, but for an entire nation.

A dream shared by thousands

Mr Al Mansouri was one of 4,022 people - drawn from 38 different fields of work and aged from just 17 to 67 - to apply to become the UAE's first astronaut in a programme launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre back in December, 2017.

A shortlist of 95 men and women was then whittled down to 39 who made it through to an international interview stage.

The 39 went through a round of tests that included a range of activities to measure intelligence, aptitude, neurocognitive ability, personality, and working memory, according to the MBRSC.

A total of 18 passed that hurdle, securing a spot in the final interview stage.

An elite nine hopefuls were then chosen undergo assessment from specialists in Russia from Roscosmos in July.

Two men in line for a place in history

And then there were two.

In September, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, announced that Sultan Al Neyadi, a doctor of information technology, and Hazza Al Mansouri, a military pilot, would be sent to Russia for advanced training ahead of the mission.

It was a proud moment for both men, yet they knew that ultimately only one of them could become the first Emirati to make it into space.

A gruelling training regime

To ensure they were ready for the incredible challenge awaiting them, they were pushed to their limit in a gruelling training regiment at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, north-east of Moscow, Russia.

They underwent winter survival skills, a key component of preparations ahead of boarding the Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station.

The outdoor training simulated what could happen if the capsule has to come back to Earth in an emergency and crash-land in a remote location.

“They will be left in a remote area with conditions similar to a Siberian winter and they will have to survive for two to three days on their own. This is a pre-requisite for any astronaut before they go on the Soyuz rocket," said Salem Humaid Al Marri, assistant director general for science and technology at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre said at the time.

While the pair may have felt like they had the weight of the world - or at lease a country - on their shoulders they knew there was the prospect of soon feeling like they were walking on air.

In January, MBRSC posted video of the two men taking part in zero gravity training.

The footage, taken at Yuri Gagarin Centre, north-east of Moscow, showed the pair undergoing training in conditions that simulate those on board the International Space Station.

Hazza Al Mansouri trained alongside Sultan Al Neyadi in Russia in preparation for his trip to the International Space Station in September  
Hazza Al Mansouri trained alongside Sultan Al Neyadi in Russia in preparation for his trip to the International Space Station in September  

As part of their training, they had to put on and remove heavy suits within 15 seconds, in case of an emergency.

They were also trained to cope with the dizziness and sickness caused by spinning around when returning to the Earth.

Mission accomplished

The months of training finally paid off when Mr Al Mansouri was chosen to be the lead astronaut for the history-making space mission, with Sultan Al Neyadi part of the backup team, on Friday.

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It is a huge accomplishment for the father-of-four, for whom the hard work is just starting.

He will continue intensive training with the prime team for the journey into space.

Mr Al Mansouri will set off for an eight-day space mission to ISS aboard a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and return to Earth aboard a Soyuz-MS 12.

A journey decades in the making for the UAE

The UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed meets with three American astronauts in February 1976.  
The UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed meets with three American astronauts in February 1976.  

The mysteries of space have long fascinated the entire world.

The UAE may have only come together as a unified country in 1971, but its ambitious leaders soon set their sights further afield. Much further.

In the early 70s, Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE, held a number of meetings focused on space projects.

There was one memorable meeting in 1976, in Abu Dhabi, with three American astronauts who had taken part in a historic link up in orbit with a Soviet Soyuz craft a year previously.

The meeting saw Sheikh Zayed presented with a model of the US Space Shuttle, then still five years away from its first flight.

Nearly 40 years later, the UAE Space Agency was set up.

A country on the fast track in the space race

The UAE has been quick to make its mark in space exploration.

Last October, the The first entirely UAE-made satellite launched into space in what was hailed as an "unprecedented Emirati achievement" by the country's leaders.

KhalifaSat, designed and built by engineers at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, took off as planned shortly after 8am UAE time from Tanegashima Space Centre, sited on an island some 40km south of the Japanese mainland on October 29.

The UAE also plans to launch a probe to Mars in 2021 to mark the nation's 50th anniversary.

But even that will not be the final frontier.

The UAE Space Agency also intends to establish the first human colony on Mars by 2117.

Updated: April 13, 2019 02:44 PM

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