'I'll never forget seeing the space launch in person - next stop, the Moon'

The National's Sarwat Nasir reflects on a milestone moment for the UAE as Sultan Al Neyadi travels to the International Space Station

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LIVE UPDATES: Sultan Al Neyadi blasts off to space

A bright red flash, the roar of the rocket and an enthralled crowd erupting in applause ― this was an unforgettable moment years in the making.

I was only about five kilometres away from the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Thursday, which gave me extraordinary views of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket soaring through the skies.

On board was the UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi, carrying with him a nation's awe and admiration and lifting its ambitions to new heights.

The loud crackling sound of the rocket’s powerful Merlin engines shook the ground beneath me, causing car alarms to go off in a large parking area nearby.

As the rocket climbed higher, its burning fuel turned the skies a bright red, with a nearly blinding light that added to the fascinating experience.

It was a sight many of us space enthusiasts in the UAE had waited almost five years to see.

Reaching for the stars

Dr Al Neyadi was chosen as one of the country’s first two astronauts in 2018, along with Maj Hazza Al Mansouri.

It was Maj Al Mansouri who etched his name in the history books after becoming the first Emirati in space.

He embarked on an eight-day trip to the International Space Station, with Dr Al Neyadi offering steadfast support as reserve astronaut.

Sarwat Nasir at Cape Canaveral ahead of the space launch. Photo: The National

This time, Maj Al Mansouri has acted as back-up astronaut ― happily offering the same practical and moral support he received.

Dr Al Neyadi will spend six months aboard the orbiting science laboratory, becoming the first Arab to take on a long-term space mission.

Mission accomplished

I knew very well that astronauts spend most of their careers training on the ground to prepare for a relatively short amount of time in space.

Dr Al Neyadi’s eagerness to one day travel to space and impressive dedication to his training must have made the wait feel like a lifetime.

But the UAE had made it clear that a long-duration space mission would follow Maj Al Mansouri’s historic flight.

More history beckoned and Dr Al Neyadi was the obvious choice for the next mission.

And, so, after years of training all over the world, his time to shine finally came on Monday.

Except, he was made to wait just a little while longer.

I was confident that the launch attempt on Monday would go off without a hitch, only for it to be called off less than three minutes before lift-off.

Technical issues that caused the postponement were thankfully resolved, allowing for Dr Al Neyadi to realise his dream only days later.

So March 2 turned out to be the lucky day for the UAE and Dr Al Neyadi, with a beautiful launch that enthralled crowds gathered at the Kennedy Space Centre and people around the world.

While the mission is a huge feat for the UAE and the region, it is only the beginning of the country’s space ambitions.

The Emirates is eyeing the Moon next and we could be seeing an Emirati walking its surface one day.

That will also be an epic launch to cover.

Updated: March 02, 2023, 11:02 AM