By Kenneth Chang
The United Arab Emirates is about to send its first astronaut to space. That is a step in a budding, ambitious space program for an oil-rich country the size of Maine along the southern side of Persian Gulf. Next year, it plans to send a robotic spacecraft to Mars, and its leaders talk of colonizing 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.
When is the launch?
Liftoff is 9:57 am Eastern time. NASA Television will broadcast coverage of the launch beginning at 9 am. Three astronauts will travel from a spaceport in Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz capsule, the only spacecraft on Earth currently capable of trips to the International Space Station. The Soyuz will make a quick six-hour trip to the space station, and NASA will also cover its scheduled 3:45 pm arrival.
Who is the Emirati astronaut?
Hazzaa al-Mansoori is a former Emirati F-16 pilot. Also aboard will be Jessica Meir of NASA and Oleg Skripochka of Russia.
“I will try to remember each second of the launch itself,” al-Mansoori 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.”
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.
Why is the UAE sending an astronaut to space?
During his time in orbit, al-Mansoori 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 Emirates 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, either.
In December 2017, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, which is one of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the UAE, 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 in the same way that wealthy space tourists have also bought trips to the space station. That is why NASA refers to al-Mansoori as a “spaceflight participant” and not as a professional astronaut.
The price has not been publicly revealed.
From more than 4,000 applicants who wanted to fill the Soyuz seat, the space center selected two: al-Mansoori, the father of four, and his backup, Sultan al-Neyadi.
The two headed to Russia for training, including outdoor survival skills in case the return Soyuz capsule landed far off course. Al-Mansoori has posted on Twitter about his astronaut experiences, mostly in Arabic, occasionally in English.
Some of the experiments that al-Mansoori 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.
What other plans does the UAE have for space?
NanoRacks announced last week that it will be opening an office in Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate.
“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 specializing on space markets, reported that the Emirati spent $383 million on space last year. 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 Emirates is working with three American universities: the University of Colorado, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Who were earlier astronauts from the Arab world?
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.
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