Emirati engineers launching the Arab world’s first mission to Mars share remarkable journey

Two of the engineers spoke to 'The National' from the launch site in Tanegashima Island, Japan about the challenges of completing a mission during a pandemic

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Emirati engineers have told of their remarkable six-year journey to lift-off for the UAE's momentous mission to Mars - from living on a remote Japanese island to facing up to the challenges of a pandemic.

An intrepid team of eight engineers have been based in Japan since early April to prepare the Hope spacecraft for its historic launch on July 15.

The majority of the group have been working on the project since its inception in 2014 but never imagined they would have to grapple with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

With most of the spacecraft tests now completed, two of the engineers spoke to The National about their remarkable experience working on the mission so far.

Challenges posed by Covid-19

Omar Al Shehhi, the lead for integration and testing of the spacecraft, is one of the engineers who has been working on the mission since the start.

“We never thought a pandemic would break out in the world and we’d have to rethink about if we would be launching the Emirates Mars Mission on time,” said Mr Shehhi, 31.

When concerns about a possible delay of the mission started to surface, the team held a meeting to decide on the future of the project.

Omar Al Shehhi, lead of integration and testing of the spacecraft. Courtesy: Emirates Mars Mission

Every two years, there is a narrow window to launch missions to Mars because of a rare alignment of Earth and the Red Planet.

“We sat together with the project manager and we said we have to launch now or else we’d be waiting for two years. We said we worked hard, and we’d like to launch it on time,” he said.

So, the engineers were sent to Japan on April 5 and were required to quarantine in Tokyo for two weeks.

The strict measures were taken to ensure that the launch site on Tanegashima Island was kept virus-free.

Mr Shehhi said the new safety measures have created memories during this project that he will “always remember”.

“The new lifestyle is one of the more memorable things in the project. We have to be extra careful, not just because of the technical risk but also because of the pandemic,” he said.

Another memorable moment for him was when they completed the probe’s testing with the ground station in Dubai, which meant the spacecraft was ready to be shipped to the launch site in Japan.

Life on a remote island

The launch site is located on the Tanegashima island, which is situated south of the Kagoshima prefecture.

Travelling there is complicated and can include different modes of transport. It took an 83-hour mission to ship the spacecraft there in April.

Suhail Al Dhafri, the deputy project manager and spacecraft lead, said all engineers are required to keep a daily log of their temperatures to ensure their safety and that of the launch site.

The team’s work shift is from 7.30am to 5.30pm and they use their free time to exercise or watch movies.

Suhail Al Dhafri, the deputy project manager and spacecraft lead. Courtesy: Emirates Mars Mission

“On the island everything has been closed. A few restaurants started to open up about three weeks ago, but only for take-out,” he said.

“During our free time, we walk on the beach or the streets. We stay away from crowded places. Most of the time we get take-outs and we spend our time in the hotel.”

A lonely launch with thousands watching virtually

Mr Al Dhafri and Mr Al Shehhi had hoped to bring their young children along, so they could watch the historic launch taking place.

Due to travel restrictions, only a small team on ground in Japan will be present for the launch.

“When your kids watch this moment, it is something that will change their lives,” said Mr Al Dhafri.

“Kids don’t have limits – they dream of being astronauts. It would have been nice to see them experience a moment that would spark their interest in space.”

However, the engineers' families will be watching the live stream of the launch.

Mr Al Shehhi said it is safer for them to be at home because of the pandemic.

“We would’ve wanted them here, as this was a rare opportunity, but with the pandemic things has changed,” he said.

The event will be live streamed and hundreds of thousands of people are expected to watch on as the first Arab mission to the Red Planet blasts off into space.