Emirati astronaut in space: In a flash of light history was made

The blast-off from a remote Kazakh space base into the dark night sky is just the beginning for Hazza Al Mansouri, writes James Langton from Baikonur Cosmodrome

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Rising on a column of fire and smoke, the UAE’s first astronaut headed to the International Space Station and a new chapter in the country’s history last night.

At exactly 5.57pm UAE time, all 20 main engines of the Soyuz-FG rocket ignited to deliver one million pounds of thrust and lift mission MS-15 clear of the launch pad at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

A huge ball of orange flame erupted from the launch pad and grew in size as a wall of sound washed over the stunned spectators.

The rocket rose quickly, a fireball against the dusk. As it climbed through the clouds it illuminated them with light, leaving a trail of smoke curving behind it.

It's a great moment for the whole country, for the whole Arab region. After eight days I'll be looking forward to seeing him back on earth. I can't wait

Even 40 kilometres up, the path of Soyuz was visible from the ground, As the boosters shut down and separated, four distinct trails of white smoke could be seen descending.

It was a flawless launch that ended nine minutes later when the engines of the third stage cut, putting Hazza Al Mansouri, 35, into orbit and on his way for a rendezvous with the space station nearly six hours later. On the ground, spectators erupted with spontaneous applause.

In the process, the air force pilot became the first Emirati to pass the 100km Karmen line that marks the official edge of space, and to experience the weightlessness of zero gravity.

Below him, the blue and white of our planet passed silently, with the Sun rising and setting every 90 minutes as the craft completed the first of four orbits in its journey.

"It's a great moment for the whole country, for the whole Arab region," his teammate and reserve astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi told The National in Baikonur.

“He’s there for a mission, to raise the UAE flag on board the station and achieve Zayed’s ambition, our late leader.

“After eight days I’ll be looking forward to seeing him back on Earth. I can’t wait to see him.”

Maj Al Mansouri’s day had begun almost 12 hours earlier with a final farewell to his wife and four children at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur City.

It was a short walk to the waiting bus where his children captured the hearts of the crowd as they pressed their hands to their father’s through the glass window. Crew members have been in quarantine for two weeks to avoid sickness.

It was then a 30-minute drive to the launch centre surrounded by the empty desert scrub of Kazakhstan.

Ground staff helped them into their space suits, attaching the helmets and fitting their gloves. Maj Al Mansouri opted to keep his wedding ring on as the gloves were fitted.

Then came the walk to the bus that would take them to their ship, the three crew watched by family and friends along with Emirati officials and diplomats.

For the first time, Maj Al Mansouri and fellow crew members Oleg Skripochka and Jessica Meir could see the rocket on the launchpad, gleaming under a blue sky with just a whisper of cloud.

Cradled in the main launch towers, the Soyuz looked small and almost vulnerable against the empty desert steppes that run for hundreds of kilometres in every direction from Baikonur.

Two hours before launch, the astronauts were taken to their capsule and strapped into their seats. As they waited, ground control played them a selection of their favourite music, including a song Maj Al Mansouri had dedicated to his mother.

As the final countdown began, the umbilical power cables of the same launch pad that launched Yuri Gagarin on his first mission in 1961, swung back to leave the rocket silhouetted again the last rays of sunlight.

At 10 seconds to launch, the main engines ignited, and within five more seconds had reached full power. At zero the Soyuz began slowly to clear the pad.

Visible for kilometres around, the Soyuz accelerated to a speed of 1.8 kilometres a second, chasing the International Space Station only which minutes before had passed over the launch pad, a tiny speck of light in the darkening sky.

One minute and 48 seconds later, still just visible at an altitude of 40km, the four main boosters, now exhausted, fell away from the ship, to fall to earth hundreds of kilometres from the launch site.

The Soyuz was now too high to need its emergency escape tower, and this too was jettisoned as explosive bolts fired.

The rocket’s main engine continued to burn although the Soyuz was now too high to see from the ground.

It was now three minutes from launch and the two protective panels that shield the capsule and crew during the first stage of launch also detached, exposing the Soyuz capsule and allowing light to flood through its window at last.

Four minutes 40 seconds and the engines of the third stage were ignited for the final burn.

It was an historic moment. The Soyuz was travelling at 13,000kph and had passed the line that divides the Earth’s atmosphere from space. Maj Al Mansouri was now officially the first Emirati in space.

Soyuz continued to climb for another five minutes. At nine minutes, the fuel of the third stage was exhausted and it too fell back to Earth.

It was enough. Inside the capsule the toy unicorn placed by Cmdr Skripochka to hang from the capsule roof, instead now floated above them.

Zero gravity had been achieved and the Soyuz was in orbit. Astronaut Al Mansouri and the others were able to flip up their helmet visors and remove their gloves.

Outside, the Soyuz extended its twin solar panels and antenna. Now powering itself, the ship began the four orbits that would end with it docking at the ISS just six hours after launch.

For Astronaut Al Mansouri, first of his kind, the real work of his mission was just beginning.

Next steps

In his eight days Maj Al Mansouri will perform a series of experiments, question-and-answer sessions with young people in the UAE and present a live tour of the station in Arabic. He will also undergo brief medical experiments to study the effects of space on his body.

After docking about midnight the Soyuz hatch will open at 2am, allowing the crew on to the ISS.

During his eight-day trip, Maj Al Mansouri will make dinner for his crew mates with traditional Emirati food flown up in cans.

  • Thursday, September 26, he will carry out a series of science in space experiments and take part in a short radio call at 11.33pm
  • Friday, September 27, experiments include time perception in microgravity and a live session at 2.30pm UAE time lasting about 20 minutes
  • Saturday, September 28, science in space experiments followed by a cardiovector session. This is a study that astronauts undergo to understand more about cardiology in space and the stresses placed on the body
The current six-member Expedition 60 crew gather for dinner inside the galley of the Zvezda service module. When Al Mansouri, Meir and Skripochka arrive there will be nine on the station for eight days. The station's maximum capacity is 12 astronauts. Courtesy: Nasa 
The current six-member Expedition 60 crew gather for dinner inside the galley of the Zvezda service module. When Al Mansouri, Meir and Skripochka arrive there will be nine on the station for eight days. The station's maximum capacity is 12 astronauts. Courtesy: Nasa 
  • Sunday, September 29 - tour of the station in Arabic. Space chiefs hope to educate and inspire millions of young Arabs as Maj Al Mansouri takes them around the ISS. There will also be a live chat session between 2.40pm and 3pm
  • Monday, September 30, another live session at 4.14pm, followed by further experiments
  • Tuesday, October 1, a further live session with young people followed by experiments involving fluids in space
  • Wednesday, October 2, more experiments and preparations for the Soyuz craft to undock
  • Thursday, October 3, undock at 11.36am to descend to Earth. Maj Al Mansouri will return to Earth, landing at one of three sites in Kazakhstan about 4pm UAE time

On board the ISS already are Russians Alexey Ovchinin and Alexander Skvortsov, Nasa astronauts Christina Koch, Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano.

Hague and Ovchinin are scheduled to wrap up a mission of more than 200 days on October 3 and return to Earth with Maj Al Mansouri.