The UAE will send its first astronaut into space on Wednesday, September 25. Hazza Al Mansouri will board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan before blasting off into space. He will spend eight days at the International Space Station where he will carry out scientific experiments and — all the while etching his name in the history books of the UAE.
Here is everything you need to know about the country’s first astronaut’s mission:
How was the UAE’s first astronaut chosen?
In December 2017, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, launched the UAE Astronaut Programme to find the country’s first ever space traveller.
Emiratis from all walks of life were encouraged to apply and, in the end, 4,022 men and women between the ages of 17 to 67 had done so. These hopefuls were eventually whittled down to two, after rounds of training, testing and interviews.
The finalists were Hazza Al Mansouri, a 34-year-old former military pilot, and Sultan Al Neyadi, a 38-year-old doctor of information technology and former engineer for the UAE Armed Forces.
Major Al Mansouri was announced as the prime astronaut in April, with Dr Al Neyadi acting as his backup.
Both had to train rigorously to be prepared for the mission ahead.
How have they prepared?
Both Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi will have spent nearly a year undergoing intense training by the time the rocket launches. They began by learning Russian at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Moscow. This was a key requirement to be able to communicate with ground control and fellow crew members.
In addition to daily visits to the gym to maintain peak fitness, the pair spent time in a human centrifuge, a huge spinning arm that rotates at a speed of 96kph to simulate the g-force of lift-off — three times that of gravity on Earth.
The simulation prepares astronauts for the rigours of space flight, where g-forces circulate blood away from the brain and cause it to pool in the lower part of the body, resulting in loss of consciousness.
While the tests raised the endurance levels of the astronauts, special suits prevented blood from settling in the legs.
The astronauts also learnt specific breathing techniques to deal with the stress caused by g-forces.
They were taught how to deal with ISS evacuations and other emergencies.
A survival training exercise in Star City left them needing to fend for themselves in freezing temperatures in the wilderness. Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi spent three days in a forest learning to survive in the harsh winter conditions — in case of a crash landing in a hostile environment.
They learnt how to build two types of shelters, first-aid skills, as well as how to cope with stress, utilise available resources and communicate with search-and-rescue teams through visual signals such as flares.
Other than their intensive training in Russia, the pair of Emirati astronauts finished around 30 hours of theoretical and practical training under the supervision of specialists from the European Space Agency at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany.
There, they learnt to operate the equipment and systems used in the European unit, named Columbus, at the ISS.
They also learnt to use the life support system that is crucial to the survival of the astronauts in the ISS, and how to communicate with the ground station.
Who else is going on the mission?
The main crew includes Maj Al Mansouri, Russian commander Oleg Skripochka and US astronaut Jessica Meir. The backup crew is composed of Dr Al Neyadi, Russian flight commander of Roscosmos Sergei Ryzhikov, and US Nasa astronaut Thomas Henry.
In the two weeks before the mission, the prime and backup crews will be confined to a containment area and denied access to the outside world. This will be for their safety and that of the other astronauts in the ISS.
The quarantine will ensure they are free of germs or infections that they could carry to the ISS.
During their quarantine, Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi will be in the care of the Russian Federal Medical-Biological Agency, which will be responsible for preventing germs from entering their ground and space facilities.
The facilities and tools they use will be frequently sterilised, as will their accommodation, buses and training sites. Immediately before the flight, health experts will clean the Soyuz MS-15.
Meanwhile, the astronauts will be placed in the so-called "clean room", where they will be subjected to their final sterilisation, along with the belongings they plan to take on their mission.
What Maj Al Mansouri will take to space
When Maj Al Mansouri goes to space, he will be carrying 10kg of cargo — courtesy of Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
The shipment includes items related to the UAE’s heritage, culture and history:
- The country's flag and logos, which will be placed in museums or distributed to the UAE's leadership upon Maj Al Mansouri's return to Earth.
- Thirty Al Ghaf tree seeds that will be planted in celebration of the year of tolerance — of which the logo is a branch from the Ghaf tree.
- Maj Al Mansouri's personal belongings, including family photos and other souvenirs
- Emirati food, which will be served to the rest of the astronauts at the ISS as part of a cultural exchange.
- A photograph of UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed with a delegation of Apollo astronauts, taken in 1976.
- A copy of My Story, by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in which the first chapter talks about the story of the day Sheikh Mohammed announced the launch of the UAE Astronaut Programme, and MBRSC's book The Race to Space.
- Materials related to scientific experiments to be conducted at the ISS, such as inflatable balls representing Earth and Mars, among others.
- The three winning entries of MBRSC's Send to Space competition in the categories of poetry, stories and paintings.
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.
About the 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.
What he will eat?
Maj Al Mansouri’s space mission will be gruelling and the surroundings unfamiliar, but the Emirati will not be without the comforts of home.
Space Food Laboratory, a Russian company that produces astronaut food for mass consumption on Earth, will prepare traditional dishes for the duration of Maj Al Mansouri’s journey.
He will be provided with a menu of Emirati delicacies including canned halal salona — a chicken stew — the pounded meat and rice dish madrouba, and balaleet — sweetened vermicelli served with an omelette — for breakfast.
The food will be processed in special pouches enabling it to be eaten in zero gravity, said the Russian state news agency Sputnik.
Maj Al Mansouri will also host a food night for crew mates on board the ISS — offering canned and liquefied versions of the nation's best-loved dishes.
What will he wear?
Maj Al Mansouri will wear a customised Sokol space suit and sit in a bespoke Soyuz seat liner during launch and on his return to Earth.
Sokol suits are worn by all astronauts who fly on the Soyuz aircraft. They are worn to protect astronauts from potentially harmful conditions in space. In an emergency, the suit pressure is usually maintained.
Read more: UAE astronauts try on their space suits
Live from the ISS
MBRSC will have a dedicated space in the centre’s headquarters to follow the launch to the ISS and the return to Earth. MBRSC will also broadcast Maj Al Mansouri’s mission through a number of live sessions, some of which will be sound and picture and others sound only. These events will be run by the Emirates Foundation, which will bring together students and the public.
The ground station
A dedicated team of Emirati engineers working at the ground station will manage the mission by communicating, receiving and distributing information to four other ground stations.
The team will communicate with Maj Al Mansouri while aboard the ISS, to get a brief on his task list and schedule of activities through daily communication every morning.
The ground station will also be responsible for receiving information, videos and pictures, in addition to the results of the scientific experiments conducted by Maj Al Mansouri aboard the ISS.
Maj Al Mansouri will return to Earth on October 3 at 4.48pm UAE time.
The separation process on the returning spacecraft occurs during the final orbit, nearly 3.5 hours before landing.
The capsule is fitted with thrusters to slow the descent so it will land on the ground quietly and smoothly in the northeast of the centre of Baikonur.
Maj Al Mansouri will immediately be seen by Dr Hanan Al Suwaidi, the flight surgeon for the mission, who will have been examining and following up with the two Emirati astronauts throughout their training. She will be checking in with Maj Al Mansouri throughout his mission and will examine him in a medical camp at the landing site on his return to Earth.
What comes next?
Though Maj Al Mansouri will be the first Emirati to travel to space, he will not be the last. Dr Al Neyadi has been promised the next spot on a UAE mission to space.
What this means for the UAE
This mission not only represents a historical milestone for the UAE but for the Middle East as whole. Maj Al Mansouri will be the first Arab astronaut to go to space and the 562nd person to have been into space at all.
Upon his arrival at the ISS, the UAE will become the 38th country to send someone to space.
The UAE's journey to space began with UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed. In the 1970s he held at least three meetings on space, including a memorable gathering in Abu Dhabi in February 1976, with three American astronauts.
A little over 40 years later, the UAE would send its first astronaut into space.
About the International Space Station
For nearly 20 years, ISS has been continually occupied, with more than 235 people from 18 countries, spending several hours per week conducting in-depth research crossing various disciplines; from space and physical sciences, to biological and Earth science from the microgravity laboratory.