Blast Off!

by Eddie Rayner

The UAE made history on September 25, 2019, when its first astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, soared skywards, bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

The 36-year-old former military pilot was on the S61 Expedition on the Soyuz MS-15 mission as a second flight engineer, along with American flight engineer Jessica Meir and Russian commander Oleg Skripochka. During his eight-day flight, he was mainly focusing on microgravity effects on the human body, as well as conducting experiments provided to him by 16 schools across the UAE. He was also tasked to carry out daily maintenance on the ISS.

Al Mansouri was selected from over 4,000 who applied for the UAE Astronaut Programme. And, although his stay in space was relatively brief, the journey was historic: he was the first visitor to the ISS representing the United Arab Emirates, making the nation the 40th in the world to send someone into space.

Before finally being given the nod to ‘head for launchpad’, Al Mansouri completed six phases of psychological tests, advanced medical tests, and a series of interviews in cooperation with NASA.

When on the ISS, it was clear that Al Mansouri was having a wonderful time, recording a video broadcast while demonstrating the rotational skills of a free-flying Japanese robot. The robot was the focus of an educational project transmitted down to Earth for UAE students to observe. The video also began with a pre-recorded segment in which Al Mansouri and fellow trained UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi introduce the spaceflight partnership between Japan and the UAE.

Al Mansouri also took to Twitter, proclaiming: “Delighted for the opportunity to share part of our Emirati culture with the crew aboard the ISS.”

Facing Mecca in Zero Gravity

Al Mansouri, a military fighter pilot with 14 years of experience, also had an extra challenge; how to practice his faith in space. Astronauts on the ISS witness 16 sunrises and sunsets a day, making life more difficult for observant Muslims who are expected to pray and fast according to the time of day.

Additionally, of course, Muslims are expected to face towards Mecca when they pray – posing another difficulty for astronauts in zero gravity who are rapidly orbiting the Earth. The advice given, though, was that Al Mansouri should time his prayers to match the time of day in Mecca, and face the Earth if possible.

Packing for the Trip

Each astronaut was allowed to take 0.68kg of items with him on the Soyuz spacecraft, and Al Mansouri chose to take the following:

  • The Holy Quran
  • Qissati, the latest book written by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai
  • A 100% silk UAE flag
  • 30 Ghaf tree seeds
  • Emirati food
  • Photos of his family
  • A photo of the late Sheikh Zayed meeting three American astronauts in 1976
  • Inflatable balls that represent Mars and Earth

Al Mansouri returned to Earth on October 3, 2019, on a Soyuz spacecraft with crewmates Nick Hague of NASA and Alexey Ovchinin of Russia.

UAE Astronaut Programme Requirements:

  • Nationalist: Emirati
  • Age: 18+
  • Language: proficient in Arabic and English
  • Education: University Graduate (Bachelor’s or Higher)

Where to apply?