The UAE has a new hero: thousands cheer on Hazza Al Mansouri at parties across the country

Even Hazza's sister - Shamsa Al Mansouri - watched on as her brother became the first Emirati in space

Thousands of people turned out across the UAE to watch Hazza Al Mansouri make history by becoming the first Emirati in space.

School pupils, students, space enthusiasts and family were among the throngs of people who marked his date with destiny.

Close to a thousand people streamed into Abu Dhabi’s National Exhibition Centre alone on Wednesday to watch an emotion-filled live stream of the historic launch.

Chief among them was none other than Maj Al Mansouri’s younger sister, Shamsa.

"We look up to him," Ms Al Mansouri told The National. "He made the impossible dream a reality." Crowds of well-wishers surrounded Ms Al Mansouri as she made her way into the venue. "He has inspired everyone and now we can do anything," she said. "I will follow his lead."

Well before the successful 5.57pm blast-off time, the atmosphere began to build inside the venue. Huge video screens showed a montage of Maj Al Mansouri’s journey from fighter pilot to astronaut and the venue erupted every time he appeared on screen.

“Hazza was picked from thousands,” said Abdullah Al Naqbia, 21, an engineering student at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic who came for the launch. “Now I will study this field and send the next Emirati astronaut to space,” he said, with not a shred of doubt in his mind.

Across the country it was a similar story. Thousands of people watched in awe inside a dome at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. People waved UAE flags with wild enthusiasm and many youngsters dressed up as astronauts - the clearest indication yet that the UAE has a new hero. And when the Soyuz rocket blasted off, all the venues erupted in a wave of raw and powerful emotion.

He made the impossible dream a reality

The country's rulers were among the first to offer their congratulations.

"Hazza Al Mansouri's entry to space sends a message to Arab youth that we can march forward and keep pace with the rest of the world," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

"Our next station is Mars through the Hope Probe, competently designed by our Emirati youth."

Sharing his thoughts on Twitter, Sheikh Mohammed reflected on how far the country has come since he and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, launched the UAE Astronaut Programme two years ago.

"Today, we celebrate the historic flight of the first Emirati Astronaut to the International Space Station. An Emirati achievement we take pride in and dedicate to Muslim and Arab nations."

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said he too proudly watched Hazza Al Mansouri lift off into space.

"His event strengthens our confidence in our youth who will take our nation to new heights and reinforces our ambitions for the future. We pray for Hazza’s success and his safe return home." he said on Twitter.

“We worked so hard to reach this stage,” said MBRSC engineer Hamad Al Blooshi, who brought his three-year-old daughter Maryam - decked out in in a blue space uniform with the name tag “future astronaut” - to watch the live stream at the space centre.

“We hope this is just the start and we look ahead to many more moments like this,” he said.

Amer Al Ghafri, project manager for the KhalifaSat satellite that was manufactured at MBRSC, and launched into space on a five-year mission last October, said the whole of humanity would benefit.

“We want to say to the world that the UAE is playing a key role in the scientific research that’s happening in space,” he said. “The UAE’s efforts will come back to benefit all of the people of Earth.”

It was not just the scientific community, though, that was basking in the glow of Maj Al Mansouri’s success. Emirati Khalifa Beloul, 14, had a front row seat at the MBRSC.

“This is so incredible and exciting,” said the Dubai teenager. “It is my dream. I have always wanted to be an astrophysicist and he is an inspiration.”

University of Sharjah student Alya Alsbouli, 20, said the mission was a proud moment for all Emiratis. “Sheikh Zayed always wanted this to happen and now it finally has. It has made the whole country happy,” said the engineering student. “I can’t wait now to see what happens next when Hazza arrives at the station.”

But it was an excitement tempered with the enormity of what happened. Space travel is fraught with risk and only a few years ago, the UAE did not even have a space agency. Thabet Al Qaissieh, an Emirati astronomer who runs the Al Sadeem observatory in Al Wathba, said it was hard to comprehend how far the UAE had come.

“Every part of me reacted as if I was going to space. Hazza is truly representing all of us,” said Mr Al Qaissieh.  “Just thinking of how we were a few decades ago and what we are today is amazing. It gives me goosebumps."

He said the mission could ignite a scientific revolution in the country.

“Children that watched the launch will realise that becoming an astronaut is a reality they saw happen with their own eyes. Not words in books," said Mr Al Qaissieh. “Today marks our first step into the shores of the vastness of the cosmic ocean.”

And this was already being borne out as when the crowds made their way to their exits, there was a slight delay as dozens of children and students made a beeline buy replica astronauts and MBRSC jackets.

When the last Arab astronaut blasted off to space in 1987, Sheikh Zayed was still President. It was his dream that the UAE would someday send one of its own into orbit.

And after watching Maj Al Mansouri make that dream a reality, it was hard not to think of the Founding President smiling down from the stars.