The first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates is set to fly to the International Space Station on Wednesday (Sept. 25).
Hazzaa Ali Almansoori is scheduled to launch with NASA rookie astronaut Jessica Meir, and veteran Russian commander Oleg Skripochka, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The trio will launch on a Soyuz spacecraft on Wednesday (Sept. 25) at 9:57 a.m. EDT (6:57 p.m. Kazakhstan time, 1357 GMT).
It's a proud moment for the tiny country, which has a small cadre of two rookie astronauts prepared to work alongside space agencies who have been in the crew business for decades — NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency or Roscosmos, and the other partner entities of the International Space Station (ISS) in Europe, Japan and Canada.
"I feel excited, this has been two and a half, three years coming to what is a very exciting culmination," Salem Al Marri, head of the UAE astronaut program, told The National Monday (Sept. 23) at the launch site.
You can watch Almansoori's launch here courtesy of NASA TV. NASA's launch webcast will begin at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT).
Like many international astronauts before him, Almansoori comes from a military background. He graduated from Khalifa bin Zayed Air College in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, with a bachelor's degree in aviation in 2004 before joining the UAE armed forces, where he became a military pilot. His military experience includes flying the F-16. Almansoori was one of just two people selected from more than 4,000 candidates for the UAE space program in 2018.
While Almansoori has officially been training for about two years, he recently told reporters that his preparation for this mission dates back to far before he was officially selected to fly to the International Space Station.
"It started from my childhood, from how my parents raised me, the confidence I gained from my life," Almansoori said at a press conference at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC) Sept. 5 at Star City near Moscow, according to The Gulf News.
"I'm a very patient person"
In a separate interview with The Gulf News, Almansoori discussed everything from his role at launch — which will be minimal, although he will watch his crewmates closely if they need his help, he said — to how his training as a fighter pilot and his personality will help him in space.
"I learned that I'm a very patient person. In the Soyuz, we sit there for more than eight hours," he explained. "We will be sitting in the Soyuz on top of the rocket for two hours in a very really tight position, and we will be launching for six hours going to the ISS. It really needs a lot of patience, and we are ready for anything we will face," he said.
Almansoori added that he wants his mission to inspire his children as well as the next generation of UAE students. It's a sentiment that his backup, fellow Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, also shared at the Sept. 5 press conference. While Al Neyadi is scheduled to stay on the ground for now, he said he feels an urgency to use this mission to make a connection with young people. This is especially important, he said, with NASA considering a crewed mission to the moon by 2024 to prepare for future Mars launches.
"If we delay this, it might be too late," Al Neyadi said of the need to engage UAE youth today. "So, we have to start today. We have to continue the flights to bring the knowledge and spread the enthusiasm."
Almansoori will remain in space for eight days, returning to Earth Oct. 3 along with Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague, who both spent about half a year in space after launching in the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft in March.
His flight is possible through the "spaceflight participant" program at Roscosmos, which allows people the chance to fly into space for a few days and participate in some activities on the ISS. There have been a handful of non-agency participants that have flown to the space station through various Russian programs — people such as entrepreneur Dennis Tito and Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari.
While NASA has no such participant program today, decades ago it flew a few non-NASA crewmembers on the space shuttle as payload specialists. Notably, the agency also initially brought in foreign space agency astronauts under the payload specialist program, including people from countries such as Canada, Japan and France, before allowing such astronauts into more advanced mission specialist training in the 1990s in preparation for the International Space Station. So, it's plausible that the UAE may follow a similar path — if the funding and commitment exist — to playing a larger role in future space programs.
Crew members to the space station can only carry a few personal items with them, and Almansoori plans both a personal symbol — pictures of his family — and a country symbol, being the UAE flag, he told reporters at a press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center in July. He added that his duties in space will include conducting daily experiments and finding ways to connect with UAE youth from orbit.
"This is a great milestone for me and my country as well," Almansoori said at the July press conference. He remembered looking at the sky as a child, back when no UAE astronauts were flying. "But I'm living the impossible now."
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