UAE… From Desert to Space

In September 2018, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum announced Hazza Al Mansouri and Sutlan Al Neyadi as the first Emirati astronauts to go on this mission who will “raise the bar of ambition for future Emirati generations.”

On September 25, 2019, the mission Soyuz MS-15 was successfully launched carrying three members of the Expedition 61 crew to the ISS from the Baykonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Hazza Al Mansouri is not only the first Emirati astronaut on the mission to ISS, he is the very first Arab to make it there.

  • What are the key milestones for the Emirates Space Program?

We started 15 years ago, at that time the main focus was on building satellites in the United Arab Emirates, collaborating with both governmental and non-governmental sectors. The first step was with the tecknolodgy transfer program to get satellite technology. The result was Dubai Sat 1 then Dubai Sat 2 satellites, after which we successfully manufactured the first 100% UAE-made satellite: Khalifa Sat. The Dubai Sat 1 and Dubai Sat 2 were launched aboard the Russian rocket Dnepr in 2009 and 2013 respectively with the aid of Russian expertise, thus succeeding in the indigenization of technology.

We’ve been working on the Mars Hope Mission for six years now to build the Amal (it means “Hope” in Arabic) probe which hopefully will be launched in 2020 from Japan, making it the first Arab mission ever to reach Mars. In April 2017, we launched the UAE Astronaut Program. We received more than 4,000 applications from people who wanted to be astronauts, and two of them were selected; Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan Al Neyadi. Roscosmos was a very important partner during the whole process from selecting the astronauts, to training them, to launching the mission and using the Russian part of the International Space Station (ISS). Part of the preparation program for the astronauts was learning Russian language; they have been learning it in the UAE and Russia for almost 18 months and have put a lot of efforts into it as it is a part of their mission.

  • How would you describe your cooperation with Roscosmos and whether was it different from cooperating with your European or American partners?

Cooperation was uniquely different with all of them, all of them were very good. Roscosmos was very cooperative, they stood by us at different events. Flexibility is a key word when describing our experience with Roscosmos. We have had problems scheduling the launch to space after the Soyuz MS-10 failure, but they were very flexible and helped us set a date for sending Hazza Al Mansouri to space. Although signing contracts and sealing deals often implies adaptability and strong relations, it is not until crisis time that the strength of these relationships is best tested. We have had difficulties after launching the Soyuz MS-10 last year, and that was the time we realized the flexibility and resilience of our relationship with Roscosmos. In simple words, our cooperation with Roscosmos was outstandingly fruitful.

The scheduling issue was the biggest challenge, because it involved parties other than Roscosmos. There were other challenges like designing the scientific program, training, and learning Russian language on the part of the astronauts. Nonetheless, we were able to deal with all those difficulties thanks to our exceptional partnership with Roscosmos, Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Centre (GTCT), Institute of Bio-Medical Problems (IMBP) and all the other Russian parts of this mission.

  • Where are you on the Mars 2117 program? Are you still planning on launching it in the summer 2020?

Mars 2117 is a strategic program for the Emirates to be a part of the humanity’s endeavor to reach Mars in 100 years and build an inhabitable city on the planet. We have five-year plans when it comes to research and development expenditures focused on space-related issues and studying human life sustainability on the Mars and on the Moon. Our first project is “Mars Science City”. It is a place where all the research related to energy, water and food can be conducted because these are the three main elements that should be addressed when we talk about people living in space. The Mars Science City will be launched in two years in Dubai, with focus on studies simulating Mars environment and analogue studies as well. It will become a platform for international cooperation with various partners.

  • Khalifa Sat was 100% UAE-made. Was it based on a certain prototype?

Khalifa Sat was completely designed in UAE. Part of the technology used to make it has been developed in the UAE, the other part was bought from different countries around the world, including Russian technology; we did not make the whole thing from scratch. This is exactly like car manufacturing: you design the car and its engine, but you buy tires for it because they require a special know-how and it would be much more convenient to buy than to manufacture them. Khalifa Sat includes many Russian parts like the gyroscope, but the overall design and layout was completely Emirati.

After Khalifa Sat we have other projects in progress. There are miniature satellites under development like DMSat (Dubai Municipality Satellite), which is set to be launched next year. It was designed to track any environmental or climate change or any fluctuations in CO2 levels. There are also other satellites, but we cannot disclose any information about them for the time being.

  • Being the first Arab country to reach the International Space Station, how does the UAE view its responsibility towards the Arab world when it comes to going to space?

Investing in space endeavours is very important. By investing in space today, we are trying to be part of the global efforts to conduct research and scientific missions to improve life on the Earth. We do believe that investing in space improves life on the Earth. We see how some powerful countries invest in space to improve life on the Earth, like education, business, and technology sectors. We, and two other Arab pioneers in the 1980s, have gone a long way in space, and today there are Arab countries making satellites. We, as Arabs, should work together and unite our efforts in such projects, like building an all Arab satellite, to be more involved in the global movement to go to outer space.

· Are your space-related programs open only to UAE citizens or for everybody?

Some of our programs are exclusively for UAE citizens, like the UAE Astronaut Program. Nonetheless, scientists and researchers of any nationality are welcome to join, we actually do have many international professors and researchers, and our satellite photos are available for everyone.

  • What can you tell us about the first Arabic tour at the International Space Station?

We have collaborated with the Russian side to prepare national Emirati space dishes because they have a laboratory specialized in space food: The Russian Laboratory of Space Food. We agreed on three traditional Emirati dishes to be made into space food packaging, and worked out their ingredients and amounts, and the results were marvellous. The food was great and the International Space Station staff were going to try it.

All of our activities are going to be in Arabic language, since Hazza Al Mansouri is the first Arab astronaut to visit the International Space Station. Arabic food will be served, 16 scientific experiments will be performed in addition to educational experiments which had been performed by 150 children on the Earth and will be repeated in space conditions, and the results compared. There will also be storytelling in both English and Arabic, and many other activities. We hope to make the best out of this opportunity by using social media so that we can share our experience with everyone.

The last Arab astronaut was the Syrian astronaut Mohamed Fares in 1987, and before him Prince Sultan Bin Selman Bin Abdul Azziz Al Saoud of Saudi Arabia in 1985, this means that the last Arab venture to space was 32 years ago, a big gap in time that we hope won’t happen again.

  • What comes after the astronauts return to Earth?

There will be a period for rest definitely, following that there will be a series of activities and events all around the UAE and the Arab world to share UAE’s space experience. We are going to continue the training and preparation for the next space trip, but it is too early to talk about this now, we still have the future ahead of us.

The astronaut Al Mansouri returned to the Earth on October 3, 2019, together with Roscosoms cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague. The three touched down in Kazakhstan under the supervision of the Russian part of the ISS. After landing, Al Mansouri was draped in Emirati flag after the completion of his historic mission. During his presence in the ISS, Al Mansouri conducted scientific experiments in zero gravity environment and shared his experience in details with his Instagram followers. Al Marri had added in an interview with Emirati national media that in the future we could see an Emirati woman astronaut going on future space missions.

According to Roscosmos, Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague spent 203 days in space, and Hazza Al Mansouri – eight days. The Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft has been a part of the ISS since March 15, 2019. During the mission, the crew completed some applied scientific researches and the experimental program supported the station working efficiency and performed its re-equipment with the hardware delivered by cargo vehicles.

Interviewed by Reem Mohamed

©New defence order. Strategy  №1 (60) 2020

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