Spacemen: The Emirati astronauts hoping for their spot in history

Two men - one mission. And only one will make it to the International Space Station this September. Middle East Exchange meets the UAE’s very first astronauts.

Lift-off is drawing closer for one of two Emirati astronauts hoping to be the first individual from the UAE to travel into space.

Hazza Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi have been undergoing rigorous training in the lead up to the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre's space mission. However, only one of them will make it as part of the three-man crew that will set-off aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) on 25 September 2019 – the other will stand by with the backup team. While onboard, the selected astronaut will present the first introductory tour of the International Space Station in Arabic.

Excitement leading up to the big event is certainly picking up. The two astronauts made their first public appearance in the first week of March at the 2019 edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. There, they unveiled the first book of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre – home to the UAE National Space Programme – entitled ‘The Race to Space’.

NO REST FOR THE AMBITIOUS

Making it as a finalist has been no easy feat for the duo. A lot of hard work – not to mention sacrifice – is involved in securing such a phenomenal place in history.

Selected from over 4,000 candidates, the astronauts had to undergo a series of mental and physical tests, which they successfully completed.

For 35-year-old Al Mansoori, his fascination with space began at a young age. The father of four's love of astronomy led him to become an outstanding military pilot. His daughter, Mariam, dreams of telling the story of how her father became the first Emirati astronaut to travel on a mission to the ISS.

Fellow father of four Al Neyadi, 37, also comes from a military background. He shares his passion for space with his daughter Reem. It was after seeing a Tweet inviting candidates to join the UAE Astronaut Programme that Al Neyadi was inspired to apply.

“It was a dream since childhood,” he reveals. “I used to see the stars in a very bright light. You could see the edges of the Milky Way, so that was the start.”

Ahead of September's eight-day science gathering mission, the twosome have taken part in a challenging winter training programme in Russia. Their gruelling schedule included complex training with the mission's crew.

Simulation training prepared them for various scenarios, including launch, docking with the station, re-entering, landing and water survival.

Speaking of the encouragement they have received, Al Neyadi says: “I think the support we get from our families and the people in the UAE and, on top of that, the wise leadership, is the most supportive thing we will get to carry out the procedures and other training.

“Wives are playing a great role in this. They have suffered a lot,” he continues. “It is a common thing in the astronaut life that they are away from their families, so they're taking care of the kids while we are away so all the respect to them.”

Al Mansoori also praised his family, describing the support he's received as a “big thing”.

“My kids have been watching me progress in the selection so they are eager to see me in space, floating. This is one of the things they want to see – how I will float!” he says. “I think it will be a big thing for our families to see us from earth while we are in space conducting experiments and doing our reports.”

The trainee continues: “My wife has supported me from the beginning and is making sure that the kids are settled and comfortable so I can focus on my tests and my mission.”

FLYING THE (UAE) FLAG

Looking ahead to the mission, Al Mansoori describes it as an “honour” to be in this position.

“I will make sure that what I learn, what I am going to see and what I am going to do will be beneficial to the next generation.

“We are working as a team to make this mission happen.”

Al Neyadi adds: “Whoever is going, we are one team. We have one mission and that is to raise the UAE flag onboard the ISS.”

To-date, the Emirati astronauts have completed 50 percent of their training and will continue to train until the day they fly.

Once the September milestone has been reached, attentions will turn to a mission to Mars, which would see the 'Hope' spacecraft arriving at the 'red planet' in 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the formation of the UAE.