It was an odyssey that ended with a capsule careering through space at 17,500km per hour and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in a ball of flame.
There were a thousand things that could have gone wrong on Hazza Al Mansouri’s return home but, in the end, none of them did.
The former fighter pilot and now first Emirati in space touched down exactly on schedule, at 2.59pm on Thursday, in remote Kazakhstan.
It marked the end of a momentous mission for the father-of-four aboard the ISS that orbited the Earth 128 times and covered a journey of almost 5 million kilometres over his eight day trip.
It was enough to forever secure Maj Al Mansouri a special place in his country’s history.
He was only the third Arab ever to visit space, and the first in more than two decades.
And on Thursday it was made clear that we will not have to wait nearly as long for the fourth.
“We are not done yet, and we will never be,” Maj Al Mansouri tweeted, minutes before he departed the International Space Station at 11.37am. He spoke of bringing back a “golden era of Arab astronauts.
“Thanks to all who worked on this great mission and supported us to achieve Zayed’s ambitions,” the astronaut wrote in another message. “We just began, and we will be back soon.”
It is hoped his voyage will inspire a new wave of interest in science in the UAE and wider Arab world, particularly among children.
While he carried out a series of valuable scientific experiments while in space, a nation of space-obsessed young people could prove Maj Al Mansouri’s most meaningful legacy.
Many schools have held space days with children dressing up as astronauts. Some even recorded video messages for their new role model, who was educated at a public school in Liwa. One kindergarten child spoke of Maj Al Mansouri "jumping over the moon in a big rocket” while as another described him as the man who "went to space and took photos".
Hamad Al Mansoori, chairman of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, said the journey would “enrich human knowledge” through the scientific work but also “pave the way for Arab youth to have new dreams and ambitions.”
“Today, we kick-start a new era in the UAE’s space sector, with the completion of a new success story for the country,” he said. “Al Mansouri… became a role model for Arab youth, and paved the way for generations to come.”
Yousuf Al Shaibani, director general of MBRSC, said: “We are witnessing a historic moment in the UAE, with the return of the first Emirati astronaut, safely back to earth.
“The success of this mission confirms our ability to turn our dreams into reality. It also proves that we are able to revive Arab civilisation, and we believe that there are no limits to the ambitions and aspirations of Emiratis”.
Across the country, cinema’s screened the homeward voyage live. People watched nervously as Alexey Ovchinin, who had just handed over command of the ISS, guided the Soyuz MS-12 back to Earth. Nick Hague, an American, was the third person on the trip.
At every crucial juncture – the undocking of their capsule, the engagement of booster rockets, the jettisoning of other sections of the craft to prepare for re-entry and the deployment of parachutes – Commander Ovchinin’s voice could be heard reassuring Russian ground control that everything was exactly as it should be.
Within minutes of touchdown, viewers saw Maj Al Mansouri back on dry land. Initially appearing slightly shaken – crashing back down to Earth is described as comparable to being in a car crash after all – he was soon giving the thumbs up to the cameras and smiling broadly. He was carried for routine medical examinations, draped in a UAE flag.
After an hour, he was due to be taken back to his training base near Moscow by helicopter, where he is expected to spend the coming days fulfilling media duties, attending debriefing sessions and meetings about this mission. He will then return home, where a hero’s welcome is guaranteed.
The UAE’s rulers were clear that his mission was a staging post – not the culmination – of the country’s ambitions in space.
The UAE aims to send a probe to arrive in Mars in 2021, and there are even long-term hopes to establish a human settlement the red planet within the next century.
“We thank Allah for the safe return of Hazza Al Mansouri, the son of the UAE, to earth after [he undertook] the first space journey of an Arab astronaut to the International Space Station,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said on Twitter.
“We are proud of this achievement and pleased with the knowledge and experience we earned. We are also optimistic of the new road we paved for our [future] generations to travel to space.”
Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, also expressed his pride at the achievement.
“Praise be to God for Hazza Al Mansouri's safe return to Earth after visiting the International Space Station.
“Congratulations to the people of the UAE for this historic achievement. Zayed's sons will fulfil our ambition to reach Mars.”