A farewell to the astronaut who inspired Sheikh Zayed

Thomas Stafford, who recently died, met UAE Founding Father in historic 1976 meeting

UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, meets the crew of the 1975 Apollo Soyuz mission, from left, Deke Slayton, Thomas P Stafford and Vance Brand. Photo: Itihad / Wam
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As the Hope probe marks three years orbiting Mars, the UAE’s journey into space can be traced back to the 1970s.

UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, had a series of meetings with American astronauts and Nasa officials during this period.

The most memorable came in 1976, when three astronauts who had taken part in a unique collaboration with the then-Soviet Union and the US came to Abu Dhabi to give Sheikh Zayed a first glimpse of the new Space Shuttle.

One of those astronauts, Thomas P Stafford, died last week at the age of 93, after a long and distinguished career that saw him continue his interest in the UAE space programme.

He met the country’s first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, on the eve of Sultan Al Neyadi's mission to the International Space Station last March.

A peacemaker

A retired US Air Force general and a veteran of the Gemini space programme of the mid 1960s, Lt Gen Stafford was the commander of a three-man crew that docked an Apollo spacecraft with a Russian Soyuz capsule as it orbited the Earth in July 1975.

The mission was intended as a gesture of detente, watched live by millions on TV at the height of the Cold War, and remains his legacy.

Reflecting on his death, Nasa administrator Bill Nelson called him "a peacemaker in Apollo Soyuz".

"Those of us privileged to know him are very sad, but grateful we knew a giant," he said.

Meeting Sheikh Zayed

A year after the link-up with the Russians, Lt Gen Stafford flew to Abu Dhabi with crew members Deke Slayton and Vance Brand for a meeting with Sheikh Zayed. They brought with them a model of the Space Shuttle, which would follow the Apollo missions in 1981.

The meeting, and two which preceded it, were arranged by the American-Egyptian scientist Dr Farouk El-Baz, then working for Nasa.

Dr El-Baz first met Sheikh Zayed 50 years ago, presenting him with a detailed map of the lunar surface, and again in 1975, when he was accompanied by an American astronaut, thought to be James Irwin, the eighth person to walk on the Moon in the Apollo 15 mission.

Dr El-Baz spoke of Sheikh Zayed and his interest in space exploration at a talk given to the Emirates Literature Foundation in 2020, saying the UAE Founding Father was fascinated by the model of the Space Shuttle and "asked a lot of interesting questions. I was very delighted to meet him early in the game".

The historic 1976 meeting in Abu Dhabi is incorporated into the design of the latest Dh1,000 bank note ($272), with a portrait of Sheikh Zayed taken from the official photograph of the 1976 meeting, next to images of the Nasa Space Shuttle and the UAE’s Hope probe.

The Apollo legacy

Lt Gen Stafford’s death means only seven of the 24 astronauts who flew to the Moon from 1969 to 1972 are still alive. He was one of the crew of Apollo 10, a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 landings in July 1969.

Apollo 10 orbited the Moon and tested the lunar lander in space, setting a speed record of 39,897kph on the return to Earth. He was chosen again to command the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

In private, both countries had reservations about the design of their respective craft but these were settled with the joint development of a docking system called the Androgynous Peripheral Attach System, or Apas 75, carried into space by a Saturn V rocket, left over, like the Apollo capsule, from the Moon landing programme.

The American and Russian capsules linked up on July 17, 1975, with Lt Gen Stafford shaking hands with his counterpart Alexei Leonov thorough the Apas airlock.

Lt Gen Stafford’s crewmates were Vance Brand and Deke Slayton, who also met Sheikh Zayed. Maj Brand, 92, who later commanding three Space Shuttle missions, is still living. Maj Slayton died in 1993 and may be best remembered for his part in the Apollo 13 rescue, with his role as director of flight crew operations played by the actor Chris Ellis in the 1995 Apollo 13 film with Tom Hanks.

That first joint mission between the US and Russia can today be seen as the inspiration for the International Space Station, with astronauts from many countries, including the UAE, working together, peacefully, in the name of science.

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Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:04 PM