Emiratis are skywriting the next chapter in their nation's history
First there were thousands. Now, after months of exhaustive physical, mental and psychological tests, just two remain. It has yet to be decided whether 34-year-old fighter pilot Hazza Al Mansouri or 37-year-old information technology expert Sultan Saif Al Neyadi will carry the UAE flag to the International Space Station next April but in a sense, the decision is academic. Both men are already heroes, as are the 4,020 other Emiratis who stepped forward to answer the call for volunteers to write the next chapter of their nation’s story among the stars.
Whichever of the two feels the explosive force of the Soyuz rocket at his back as it blasts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrone next spring, theirs are already household names, destined to go down in history. Ahead of them both lie seven months of arduous training that will make supreme demands upon their deepest reserves of determination and perseverance, a level of commitment and self-sacrifice all the more extraordinary because it is made in the knowledge that only one of them can embrace the hazardous honour of becoming the first Emirati in space.
Such singleminded focus will not be unfamiliar to those who have witnessed the extraordinary transformation of the UAE over the past 46 years. But the stirring dedication of these two men, determined to demonstrate that there is nothing on this Earth or beyond to which their people cannot aspire, will serve to inspire the next generation of Emiratis as they take the task of nation building to the next level. It is just 57 years since Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrone on April 12th, 1961, to become the first person in space. At the time, the UAE was still a decade away from foundation and life was harsh in the seven emirates, which lacked modern amenities and the most basic infrastructure.
Now, less than a lifetime later, an Emirati is poised to become only the 562nd person in space. There is a photograph of the UAE at night, taken by an astronaut on board the space station on December 11, 2013, that encapsulates the development of this country like no other image. In Nasa's image, bright clusters of lights mark out vibrant, expanding communities linked by a fine filigree of highways, thrown like a golden net across the once inhospitable desert. This view of his homeland, seen from 400km above the planet, is the prize that awaits the man destined to carry the Pan-Arab colours of the UAE aloft next year. The reward of his compatriots, as they gaze up with a sense of awe and pride at the small white light orbiting the Earth at 28,000 kilometres per hour, will be the knowledge that they are privileged to live in a country whose vaulting ambition knows no earthly limits.