Baikonur: By the time you read this, Hazzaa Al Mansoori will be on-board the International Space Station (ISS) floating in zero gravity settling into day one of his eight-day mission in space — after having propelled the UAE into the history books in a 50-metre high Soyuz MS-15 rocket weighing 305,000kg.
Hazzaa has become the first Arab astronaut to enter this multinational space station and only the third Arab in space after Saudi Arabia’s Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz (1985), and Syria’s Mohammad Faris (1987).
Yesterday evening, when the rocket lifted from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5.57pm UAE time, Hazzaa was cramped into the tightly-packed Soyuz rocket — imagine a very small car with no windows — sat to the right of Russian commander Oleg Skripochka and Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir.
It took just 12 minutes to reach orbit, 100-km up, but it would be another five hours and 52 minutes before the spacecraft docked at the ISS, 408-km from earth, and another two hours before the hatch opened to let the astronauts out of their confines and into the relative expanse of the ISS.
As the rocket lifted, vibrations on the launch pad could be felt from 1.8km away on the viewing deck. The ground shook as the engine ran on full power.
Roughly two minutes later, the first stage of the rocket fell off and burnt its way to the ground. The crowd erupted in joy, some applauded as the Mission Control announced in Russian at 6.08pm, roughly 12 minutes into the flight: “Mission successful. Last stage completed.”
Salem Al Merri, Assistant Director-General of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre and head of the UAE Astraonut Programme, said everyone was pleased with the outcome. But the launch was only half of the work. “It was a great moment. We are all happy and excited. Fifty per cent of the mission is done, Al Merri told Gulf News.
“We have a very important programme to conduct on the ISS and I’m looking forward to working with Hazzaa on the ISS in a few hours.”
The UAE came to a standstill to watch history as images of the rocket zooming into the dark Baikonur skies were broadcast through a live feed televised across the country. Eight minutes or so later, the rocket unfurled its solar arrays whole confirming its entrance into orbit.
Leading the nation, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, congratulated the country for this proud moment in UAE history. “More than two years ago, my brother Mohammad Bin Zayed launched the Emirates astronaut programme and today we are celebrating the launch of the first Emirati astronaut on a historic mission to the International Space Station.
“Hazzaa Al Mansoori’s arrival in space is a message to all the Arab youth that we can move forward and catch up with others.”
In his message, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, tweeted, “I proudly watched as Hazzaa Al Mansoori lifted off into space. This event strengthens our confidence in our youth who will take our nation to new heights and reinforce our ambitions for the future. We pray for Hazzaa’s success and his safe return home.”
The 35-year-old father of four will return to earth on October 3, landing around 800-km from the take-off site after completing 16 experiments and four live televised link-ups with the UAE public.
Reserve astronaut Thomas Marshburn from Nasa, a veteran of two space flights, virtually took Gulf News inside the cockpit to give us a glimpse of what Hazza would have felt and experienced during lift-off based on his experience during his previous space flights.
“Before lift-off inside the cockpit, all your senses are saying you’ve done this before. You’re very excited,” Marshburn told Gulf News yesterday.
“But what’s very different is before the launch. Inside the rocket, there are certain things that you can hear that you can’t hear in trainers (simulators). You could hear the valves opening and then they disconnect the umbilicals and you can hear the bang! And you realise you’re at the top of a very very tall rocket.”
Marshburn said the astronauts inside could feel every shake and vibration inside the spacecraft.
“It shakes your whole body, everything and then you feel the pressure in your chest. You feel your legs start to get pulled back and everything starts to sink back on your seat,” he said.
“You’re inside the suit, you got your headsets on. There’s a lot of noise but it’s not too loud. Pressure doesn’t change much. When it does happen, you just have to work your jaw and move your head back and forth. There’s a device on the side that you can put your nose into so you can clear your ears.”
What does 4G feel like?
"It feels like a lot of suction, like a magnet pulling your back," added Marshburn. "It can be a little hard to swallow. Like your esophagus kind of gets squeezed. When you swallow, you have to work it a little bit. It would be a little hard to breathe. After eight minutes, your body’s getting tired and you start breathing in sips. Breathing shorter and shorter. Fatigue is kicking in from all the preasure.
After that, it's all quiet, he said. They are suddenly weightless, something Hazzaa is sure to love.
"I could hear the air circulating. It's [zero gravity] wonderful. You feel everything inside rise up. Some people feel like they just tilted upside down," said Marshburn.
"It’s first time I felt alive. I felt like it was a dream. It's magical."