Reaching for the stars

Reaching for the stars

Sarwat Nasir recalls her personal encounters with Hazza Al Mansoori, slated to be the first UAE astronaut to visit the International Space Station

Published: Fri 20 Sep 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 20 Sep 2019, 2:00 AM

UAE astronaut Hazza Al Mansoori really knows how to capture a room. With just three weeks to go before his historic launch to the International Space Station (ISS), a select group of media was invited to Moscow by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) to have a look at the training facility that prepared Hazza for the mission and conduct a final one-on-one interview with him before the big day. It was to be my third meeting with the 35-year-old former military fighter jet pilot - this time in Star City, Russia - and I couldn't help reflecting on all the times I'd met him before.
My first interview with Hazza and his backup Sultan Al Neyadi was in February, much before the announcement that Hazza had been chosen for the UAE's historic mission to space - though his professional qualifications made it obvious he'd be the one carrying the country's flag to the ISS. The father of four has more than a decade of piloting experience and was the youngest F16 pilot in the UAE.
Our initial meeting was memorable. Both astronauts clearly understood the weight of responsibility they carried in being the country's first astronauts. They also seemed to grasp how important it was for us, as the media, to document their journey, graciously giving us additional time for social media posts, videos and even a selfie (how could I not?). Little did I know that I'd be meeting them again a few days later at a book fair, where they'd demonstrate the same courtesy. As clichéd as the saying is, for men who were chosen to go to space, they're pretty down to earth. Despite being worn out from signing copies of their The Race to Space book all day, the duo still took time out to do interviews and spent extra time chatting with the media at a small hotel room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Festival City. Hazza, especially, took me by surprise by talking about specific stories he liked from Khaleej Times' coverage of them. More selfies ensued.
About a month - and some digging - later, I messaged a top official at MBRSC that I had reliable sources confirming Hazza was the primary astronaut for UAE's mission to space. He didn't deny the news, only saying he could not comment at the time. About three weeks later, the Dubai Media Office tweeted what we'd known all along: Hazza had been chosen. By this time, I'd built a good rapport with him, so I was happy to congratulate him personally.
Several months passed with no meetings or press conferences, as the astronauts got busy training in Star City. Finally, on September 1, we flew to Russia to meet them. After touring the facility they'd trained in, we drove about an hour away to the resort they were staying at. Apparently, it's a popular holiday location for the elderly, but the Russian space agency often takes astronauts and cosmonauts there to relax for a few weeks before 'liftoff day'.
The resort had horses and even a small caged bear, as well as small wooden bridges, cabins and massive pine trees that surrounded the area. Hazza and Sultan came out to meet us, dressed in their blue astronaut jumpsuits and all smiles. I think they were just happy to see anyone from the UAE - even if it was media - since they'd stayed in Russia for over a year by now and seemed homesick. I even received a 'UAE Mission 1' embroidered patch with Hazza's signature on the back.
Off camera, both Hazza and Sultan are funny guys. They can charm people with their witty sense of humour just as easily as they can hold their own on all things space-related. When setting up for my interview with Hazza, I realised the clip on my mic had fallen off, so I used my hair pin to attach it to his shirt. The move had him in splits.
Their interviews this time around were definitely more interesting as they spoke about the challenges they faced while training, having to stay away from their families for so long, and what the mission means to them.
"My emotions are really mixed," said Hazza. "I feel pride, excitement, and I'm counting the days as I get closer to the launch itself. I'm going to represent not only my country but the whole Arab region at the International Space Station (ISS)."
Having never seen a rocket launch before, the honour of being chosen to represent the UAE is not lost on Hazza. Even more so is the fact that they will be launching from the Yuri Gagarin launch pad - and be the last ones to do so. "It's really amazing how the fate is working itself," he mused. "The Arabic meaning of my name is the last arrow and I'll be on the last rocket that will be launching from that pad."
After our chat, I went to retrieve the mic from him, but he took it off himself and playfully refused to return it. "I'm taking this to space," he said, smiling, referencing a previous conversation during which I'd asked him to take a copy of Khaleej Times to the ISS with him.
Overall, it was a great experience and definitely one that any journalist would spotlight in their portfolio. I'm currently in Baikonur to cover the actual launch. We won't be able to get too close to Hazza as he's under quarantine, but who knows: maybe he'll send a message to KT from space.

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