Have you ever tried to count the stars? On a dark night, where the wisps of clouds are few and thoughts are many, there is no finer feeling than looking at the sky and letting your mind wonder.
Yes, the shapes of constellations can be seen, the Man in the Moon looking down on you, the bright streak of a meteor zipping through the inky night as it burns up in the reaches of our fragile atmosphere.
The cosmos is a wondrous place, of nebulas and dark matter, of stars and galaxies, of gaseous planets and dying stars, black holes and, in those so true words of Buzz Lightyear, infinity — and beyond.
Who among us has never wondered whether we are alone in this magical void of starry universe?
As a young boy lying in the sands of the desert near Liwa, the oasis far south in Abu Dhabi, Hazzaa Al Mansoori had those same thoughts. Looking upwards, dreaming of reaching for those stars.
Since last Wednesday, that boy born shortly after his homeland turned 21, is now floating in the International Space Station (ISS), high above the world, staring down at this blue planet we share on its trips around the sun.
Hazzaa spent many Liwa nights gaping in awe at the stars and meteors, dreaming of being there, of being a pilot, reading about space trips and flying planes. Breaking from this earth and its gravitational pull.
Being a fighter pilot means pushing your body to the limit. After joining the UAE Armed Forces, Hazzaa was selected to fly F-16s. Yes, it sounds glamorous — and it is — but it also means pushing your body to places as the barriers of pain and performance blend where split-second thinking becomes second place in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.
Sure, his Bachelor’s degree in aviation in 2004 from the Khalifa Bin Zayed Air College gave an academic grounding, but F-16 training in Arizona meant enduring the excruciatingly uncomfortable forces of 9Gs, where Hazzaa’s flight suit physically squeezed the blood from his legs and torso into his brain.
He was also trained in water survival, learning how to eject from an aircraft flying more than 800 kilometres per hour, how to disentangle a parachute as he plummets towards earth, how to use a signal mirror to attract attention from up to 80 kilometres away using sunlight, and how to survive in a one-man raft in the middle of the ocean.
Al Mansoori also possesses the split-second decision-making ability required to fly one of the most technologically advanced machines, built for the sole purpose of destroying targets as it manoeuvres at airspeeds in excess of 2,400 kilometres per hour and at a height that exceeds 15 kilometres above ground.
As a young boy lying in the sands of the desert near Liwa, the oasis far south in Abu Dhabi, Hazzaa Al Mansoori had those same thoughts. Looking upwards, dreaming of reaching for those stars
The 36-year-old father of four also possesses the ability to fly that machine at very close quarters, in acrobatic formation to mark significant occasions across the UAE.
Hazzaa and his colleague, Sultan Al Neyadi, were both selected as the final candidates for astronaut training for the mission to the ISS. And while the focus of this very proud nation is indeed on Hazzaa, it’s worth sparing a thought for Al Neyadi, who also endured the very tough mental, physical and intellectual training needed to not just survive but thrive high above Earth in a very sophisticated tin can at a speed where the sun sets and rises 16 times every 24 hours.
One finds it difficult to imagine what it must feel like being strapped into a small capsule no bigger than a minibus on top of a Soyuz MC-15 rocket. And when that rocket fires up, the G forces are unlike anything Hazzaa will have faced in all the years of F-16 fighter jet training.
Let’s put it this way — it accelerates by 50 kilometres an hour every second on its trajectory — delivering millions of horsepower to reach an orbital speed of 28,800km/hr, and then reaching the 1,640km height in orbit in about 10 minutes. Yes, even though this is rocket science, it’s still incredible risky. The Soyuz-FG rockets have been launched 69 times — and one of those ended in failure.
For the next week or so, Hazzaa will be conducting scientific experiments and adding a whole new dimension to the scientific and technological achievements of this nation, its space agency, its scientists and researchers, its thousands involved in building satellites and laying the groundwork for those who will follow in his footsteps in space.
This is a truly proud moment for all in the UAE back on Earth, sharing in Hazzaa’s great adventure. His daughter Mariam and sons Ali, Abdullah and Mansoor are likely most enthralled by the fact that they can now tell their school chums that their dad is in space, up there, in the ISS.
When it comes to childhood dreams, just how can you top that ultimate expression: “My dad’s an astronaut!”