Russian Space Agency experts help United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Almansoori, member of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), to sit during inspecting his space suit prior the launch of Soyuz MS-15 space ship at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Image Credit: AP

The United Arab Emirates has sent its first astronaut to space. That is a step in a budding, ambitious space program for a country the size of Maine along the southern side of the Arabian Gulf.

Next year, it plans to send a robotic spacecraft to Mars, and its leaders talk of colonising the red planet a century from now.

Emirati officials hope that space will inspire and train a generation of engineers and scientists who can help prepare the country for a post-oil future.

The first ever Emirati astronaut

Hazzaa AlMansoori, a former Emirati F-16 pilot, launched for the International Space Station in a Soyuz space capsule from a Russian spaceport in Kazakhstan on Wednesday. Also aboard were Jessica Meir of NASA and Oleg Skripochka of Russia.

After a quick, six-hour trip, the spacecraft docked with the station at 3:42 p.m. Eastern time, at 11.42pm UAE time.

"I will try to remember each second of the launch itself," AlMansoori said during a news conference this month. "Because it will be really very important for me to share it with everyone and my country, the entire world and the Arab region."

Hours before launch, AlMansoori also tweeted about his journey: "A few hours before launch and I'm filled with this indescribable feeling of glory and awe. Today I carry the dreams and ambition of my country to a whole new dimension. May Allah grant me success in this mission. Your brother, Hazzaa AlMansoori."

The station will be crowded for the next eight days with nine occupants before three of them, including al-Mansoori, head back to Earth on October 3.

During his time in orbit, AlMansoori is to help conduct a series of experiments and conduct a tour of the space station in Arabic.

But his trip will also highlight new opportunities for countries looking to enter the space race. The UAE is not part of the consortium of countries that participate in the International Space Station. Two years ago, the nation did not have any astronauts.

A seat to space

In December 2017, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, posted on Twitter the nation's plans to start a human spaceflight program.

Without rockets or a spacecraft of its own, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai purchased a seat on the Soyuz from the Russian space agency. 

From more than 4,000 applicants who wanted to fill the Soyuz seat, the space center selected two: AlMansoori and his backup, Sultan Al Neyadi. Al Mansoori, 35, is a father of four.

Experiments in space

The two headed to Russia for training, including outdoor survival skills in case the return Soyuz capsule landed far off course. AlMansoori has posted on Twitter about his astronaut experiences, mostly in Arabic, occasionally in English.

Some of the experiments that AlMansoori will conduct are already waiting for him on the space station. NanoRacks, a Houston-based company, collaborated with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre on a competition that selected 32 experiments from Emirati students studying the effect of weightlessness on materials like sand, steel, corn oil, cement and egg whites.

Additional Emirati experiments include one studying oil emulsification in a weightless environment, as well as a second to germinate a palm date seed native to the country.

UAE: A model centre for research

NanoRacks announced last week that it will be opening an office in Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate and the country's capital.

"They are serious about becoming a space-faring nation," said Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks. "I also like the fact, to be candid, that they comfortably work with Russia, they comfortably work with China and they comfortably work with the United States and the European Space Agency. I think that is a model for the future."

Euroconsult, an international consulting firm specialising on space markets, reported that the UAE spent $383 million on space last year. While that is much less than the nearly $41 billion spent by the United States or even the $1.5 billion by India, but is more than what Canada spent.

Virgin Galactic signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Arab Emirates space agency in March that aims to set up a spaceport in the country.

Next year, the Emirates intends to launch its Mars mission, a spacecraft called Hope. The probe, on top of a Japanese rocket, is to carry five instruments that are to study the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases from the upper parts of the Martian atmosphere.

For Hope, the UAE is working with three American universities: the University of Colorado, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, a member of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, was the first Arab and Muslim to go into space as a member of a NASA space shuttle mission in 1985. He now leads the Saudi Space Agency.

Muhammed Ahmed Faris, a Syrian military pilot, flew to the Russian Mir space station in 1987.