From left: Hazzaa AlMansouri, Sultan AlNeyedi and Salem Al Marri at the launch the Race To Space book at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on 1st March, 2019. Photo Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: With only 211 days left until the first Emirati astronaut is launched into space on September 29 to join the International Space Station (ISS), there is palpable excitement among the public to know more about the programme.

That was evident at the opening day of the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature at the Intercontinental Hotel in Festival City, Dubai, on Friday when the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) launched its book Race to Space.

Two Emirati astronauts Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan Al Niyadi, who were selected from over 4,000 UAE nationals who applied, were on hand to release the book and sign copies while fielding questions from the audience. They also gave interesting insights into what goes on behind the scenes during training.

They were accompanied by Salem Al Merri, Assistant Director-General for Scientific and Technical Affairs at MBRSC , who gave an overview of the space programme. The session was moderated by the festival director, Isobel Abulhoul.

Only one of the two astronauts will actually be selected to go on board the Russian Soyuz rocket to the ISS, but despite this both men displayed amazing team spirit and optimism saying that one had to look at the big picture and that what mattered most was taking the UAE flag up to the ISS to become the first Arab in 30 years to achieve the feat, making not just the UAE but also the entire Arab world proud.

I had almost given up on my dream of being an astronaut and thought of making my daughter an astronaut instead till I saw Shaikh Mohammad’s tweet in 2006.

- Sultan Al Neyadi

Talking about his passion for space, Al Mansouri, a fighter pilot, told the audience: “As a child staying on the edge of the desert, I often gazed at the night sky, learning about the stars that helped us navigate and foresee the changing of seasons.

“I thought it was impossible to go to space, but as I grew up I read about the Arab astronaut Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz who went to space and for the first time, then I believed it was possible,” he added of the Saudi Arabian Prince, who was the first Arab to enter space in 1985, shortly followed by Syria’s Mohammad Faris in 1987.

“Then His Highness Shaikh Mohammad [Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of UAE and Ruler of Dubai] tweeted about the programme in 2006, inviting UAE nationals to apply for space programme and so I did.”

Astronauts Hazzaa AlMansouri and Sultan AlNeyedi sign the Race To Space books at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on 1st March, 2019. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Al Niyadi, an engineer, who bought small telescopes to look up at the Milky Way as a child, also shared his fascination for space.

“I had almost given up on my dream of being an astronaut, since there was no programme for me to enrol in and I thought I would instead make my daughter an astronaut one day, that was until I saw Shaikh Mohammad’s tweet in 2006.”

Both astronauts found themselves on the shortlist of 14, who were selected to undergo tough parabolic and winter survival training. They were also put through a battery of physiological and psychological tests as well as IQ evaluations, before making it into the top two.

“We have to make sure we have lots of milk to keep our bone density high,” explained Al Mansouri, who also added: “We also have to exercise a lot to bulk up our muscles to prevent muscle wastage in space, as we will have to do two hours on a treadmill a day while on board the Soyuz to keep fit.” In jest the astronauts also talked about their experiences in Moscow where they spend most of their time training, while mastering the nuances of Russian in order to talk to taxi drivers and adapting to the harsh Russian climate.

“It was tough initially to adapt to minus 25 degrees but being from a military background I acclimatised quickly,” said Al Mansouri.

Both astronauts talked about the huge responsibility they felt they had on their shoulders.

I thought it was impossible to go to space, but I read about the Arab astronaut Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and for the first time I believed it was possible.

- Hazza Al Mansouri

The one who eventually goes to ISS in September this year will be conducting a lot of experiments to see how space affected people in this region such as the effect of radiation on height, weight and bone density.

“I look forward to addressing students of UAE schools and colleges and speaking in Arabic from the space,” said Al Niyadi.

Both astronauts thanked their families who have been patient and supportive to help them stay focused on the programme and disciplined in their mission.

The Emirates Festival of Literature is running from March 1-9 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Festival City.

What is MBRSC?

The Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Research Centre is the home to UAE’s Space research programme. Established in 2006 by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, its mission is to build a sustainable space science and advanced technology sector to support the country’s knowledge based economy.

To achieve its goals it is focused on four aspects: to develop satellites, the Emirates Mars Mission to send a probe to Mars by 2020, the first UAE astronaut programme, which will launch one UAE astronaut into the International Space Station this year, and the Mars mission to build a viable city on the Red Planet by 2117. To date MBRSC has launched four satellites — Dubai Sat 1, Dubai Sat 2, KhalifaSat and Nayif — and data from these satellites is being used in global planning, environmental conservation, humanitarian relief and research.

Race to Space

The book chronicles the story of UAE’s space programme starting with the very simple yet detailed history of space exploration in the Arab World right up to the current space training of UAE astronauts, one of who will be chosen to board the Russian Soyuz rocket to reach the International Space Station on September 29, 2019.