First Emirati astronaut hopes to inspire young Arabs to follow their dreams

Hazza Al Mansouri will be launched into space on September 25 as part of the three-person crew

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When the UAE’s first astronaut launches into space in two months, he will be carrying the hopes of the nation on his shoulders.

In just 10 weeks, Hazza Al Mansouri, a former military pilot, will board a rocket that will shoot into the air at a speed of almost 8 kilometres per second. He will be heading to the International Space Station where he will spend eight days with a team of astronauts.

It will be the first time an Emirati goes to space.

Speaking at a press conference hosted by Nasa and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Houston, Texas, on Monday, Maj Al Mansouri said he was aware of the importance of the mission for the UAE.

"This mission is a great milestone for me personally and for my country, and the whole Arab region in general.”

Hazza Al Mansouri, Russian roscosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and American Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir answer questions during a press conference in Houston, Texas, on Monday. Courtesy Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

Though it will be the first time the UAE is involved in a manned space mission it is not expected to be the last.

“We are going to explore space for the sake of all mankind," Maj Al Mansouri said.

“We want to learn more about living in such harsh conditions and in the future we want to go to Mars,” he said referring to the UAE’s plans to establish the first inhabitable human settlement on Mars by 2117.

He said he hoped the ISS mission would inspire a new generation of young Arabs to pursue their dreams as he did.

“My objective is to inspire the next generation and show them nothing is impossible,” he said.

“When I was a child I would look to the stars and wonder if it was ever possible.

“I would tell everyone to work on their dreams, work hard and eventually you will reach them.”

Maj Al Mansouri was one of 4,000 applicants in a search for the UAE’s first astronaut. He and Sultan Al Neyadi were chosen as the two finalists with Mr Al Neyadi as his back-up.

The pair have been undergoing an intense training programme in Russia, Germany and the US, to prepare for the mission.

Maj Al Mansouri will leave Earth on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft on September 25. He will be accompanied by American Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir and Russian roscosmonaut Oleg Skripochka.

The crew are allowed to take up to 1 kilogram of personal items on the mission and Maj Al Mansouri had no doubt about what he plans to bring along.

“I will take my family photo and share the experience of being in space with them,” said the father of four.

"I'm excited to share this experience with family and friends, especially my kids. I miss them and I’ll make sure to share with them something from space."

He said he also plans to take an image of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father, meeting American astronauts in 1976 – to show how far the UAE has come since its unification in 1971.

“I am also going to take an Emirati flag. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.”

He said he was anxious to finally experience being in space after dreaming about it for so long.

"I'm excited about the whole mission but especially to experience the microgravity and be living in the International Space Station, and conducting daily experiments and working with the amazing group on board.

His fellow crewmates were equally buoyant ahead of their mission.

The UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed meets with three American astronauts in February 1976.  

Mr Skripockha has been in outer space on two previous mission but will be assuming the role of commander for the first time.

"It's going to be a bigger responsibility for me this time," he said.

Flight engineer Ms Meir said it was apt that such a diverse crew would be flying together in the year of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

"It shows how far we have come as a society in those 50 years that a crew with such a diversity of backgrounds would be undertaking this mission together," she said.

Ms Meir made her comments in the wake of Nasa announcing that the next person to go to the moon would be a woman - with provisional timeline of 2024 proposed.

"It is great they have laid out that goal," she said.

"I would love to be that woman but then so would many of my colleagues in Nasa."

Maj Al Mansouri said he was looking forward to treating his fellow astronauts by bringing along balaleet, a sweet Emirati dish, to share with them.

Speaking about his plans after the mission, he said he “would love to go to the Moon eventually.”

But for now he is focusing on the final steps of his preparation.

Maj Al Mansouri and Mr Al Neyadi are undertaking a two-week training programme at Nasa’s Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre.

The programme includes training on Nasa equipment and devices on board the ISS, as well as handling emergency situations such as ammonia gas leaks and depressurisation.