Here's What The First Emirati Astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri, Experienced In Space
“I remember walking to the rocket on the morning of launch day and thinking, ‘ok, the time has finally come’,” says NASA astronaut Jeff Williams. “It’s very surreal. But then you strap in and, well, for me, I was relaxed. In fact, I’m more relaxed when I’m strapping into a rocket than when I’m watching one of my friends or another member of crew get on board. I’m sure that will be true for Hazza too.”
Williams is on the phone from Houston discussing Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri. He talks with a soft, lilting Midwestern accent, one that belies the extent of his own experience and the historic nature of Al Mansouri’s inaugural mission. He has, in short, that rare kind of voice that is both authoritative and reassuring.
On September 25, Al Mansouri will climb aboard a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan and bring to a close months of intensive training. In doing so he will not only become the first Emirati to head into space, but also the first Arab to participate in a mission to the International Space Station (ISS): two historic milestones that come with no small amount of expectation attached. Both have been made possible by an agreement signed between the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
“It might be unusual for him in that he’s getting so much attention, particularly from the Middle East, but the attention comes from around the world,” says Williams (below). “That takes a little bit of getting used to at first, but it just adds to the excitement.”
Williams is one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts. He has spent a total of 534 days in space, undertaken five space walks, and commanded two expeditions to the ISS. His first mission was as a flight engineer and lead spacewalker for STS-101 in 2000; his most recent as commander of Expedition 48 in 2016.
Although Williams and Al Mansouri may be at opposite ends of their careers, their backgrounds are nevertheless similar. Both are, or were, military pilots, and both had an early fascination with space. Al Mansouri has 14 years of military aviation experience and has completed training programmes both inside and outside of the country. In 2016, he qualified to be an aeronautical pilot and piloted an F-16 Block 60 aircraft for the UAE military. Williams was formerly an experimental test pilot and logged approximately 3100 hours in more than 50 different aircraft.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous or scared,” says Williams of his first mission. “I had great anticipation that I’m sure Hazza has as well, and currently he’s having a lot of fun in the preparation. He was here in Houston a few weeks ago for a small amount of training and now he’s back in Star City in Russia. They’re training as a crew and not only going through their final phases of training but also the final exams with the Russian team.
“Then they’ll head down to Baikonur and it’s probably, at this point, not quite real to him. But then as it gets closer, especially going down to Kazakhstan, it becomes a little bit more serious. You get to see your hardware and you get in the spacecraft for the first time a few days before launch, just to check things out. And then a couple of days before launch a bunch of folks – maybe family and friends and management – show up and it gets very busy and that’s when it really sinks in.”
Watching from the sidelines will be Sultan Al Neyadi (above left), Al Mansouri’s colleague and the man chosen by MBRSC as its backup astronaut. Both astronauts have undertaken the same level of training, albeit separately as part of the prime and backup teams. In Houston, that meant emergency scenario training at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre’s life-size mock-ups of the ISS, although the bulk of their training has taken place at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia. They have also undertaken 30 hours of theoretical and practical training at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany. All will culminate in a series of final exams, with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka to command the mission.
“As a crew they will go through a day in the life of the space station,” says Williams of the final exams. “They will spend a whole bunch of time going through various activities and being evaluated by a team of engineers and technicians and trainers. And then on a separate day they will go through a mission profile of the Soyuz spacecraft. Of course most of the pressure of the exam – most of the work – is in the laps of the other two crew members who have to fly the vehicle, rendezvous with the space station, and safely get them all home.
“Hazza’s role in that is significant, but it’s much less than the commander and the flight engineer. I’m confident that they will successfully navigate through the exams and come out of it, but it’s a major milestone and there’s a lot of attention. There’s a lot of media there that day and that’s when the rest of the world becomes aware of the crew and the launch, which will follow two weeks or so afterwards.”
Al Mansouri’s time in space will last eight days. During that time he will study the impact of microgravity on the human body and will be assigned to complete existing scientific missions in ISS laboratories. He will also conduct Earth observation and imaging, interact with ground stations, share information, and document the daily lives of astronauts at the station. He will also present a tour of the ISS in Arabic.
“Our time is very busy up there,” admits Williams. “It’s an orbiting laboratory so much of the time is dedicated to science and research and different experiments, and I know that Hazza has some experiments that he’s going to be scheduled to perform. They will be relatively simple experiments because you can only do so much when you’re there for a short period of time.
“Sometimes we get assigned tasks to be in the window taking photography of the Earth and, of course, that’s one of the things that’s most amazing to everybody...you never get tired of it. Orbiting the Earth 16 times a day, going around every 90 minutes, and seeing the entire globe in that short period of time. There’s a lot on the Earth to study, to observe, to photograph and to video. It’s a unique vantage point that puts a different perspective on your view of the planet.
“And of course being in space and being weightless brings a whole new category of living as well. And it takes several weeks to fully acclimate to that. He won’t be there long enough to fully acclimate but he’ll get to the point where he’s very comfortable in it. And that will be a major part of his experience, just living and working, even for a short period of time, in a weightless environment.”
In many ways Al Mansouri’s mission to the ISS represents a broadening of international space relations. It also forms part of the UAE’s wider mission to become a global leader in space exploration over the next 50 years, with MBRSC’s UAE Astronauts Programme already several years ahead of schedule.
“I’ve done five space walks,” says Williams. “If I’m honest, it’s one thing to be inside looking through a window, it’s another thing to be climbing on the outside of the space station and viewing the entire globe. I call it the ultimate skydive.
“I don’t take it for granted at all. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to do what I’ve done, and I’m sure Hazza will feel the same way. I’m sure he sees it as a great honour to represent his country. To be the first to achieve space flight, that’s quite a thing.”