First Arab on ISS set for Earth return

Almaty (Kazakhstan) (AFP) –


An Emirati who made history as the first Arab to reach the International Space Station is set to return to Earth on Thursday following an eight-day mission that sparked euphoria in his homeland.

Hazzaa al-Mansoori of the United Arab Emirates will touch down in the Kazakh steppes at around 1100 GMT along with NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, who both survived a failed launch to the ISS last year.

Hague and Ovchinin are completing a 203-day mission aboard the orbital lab while Mansoori's two crewmates from the September 25 launch -- Russia's Oleg Skripochka and NASA's Jessica Meir -- will stay on as part of a six-member crew.

Although Mansoori's mission was a short one, it has still been the source of great pride in the UAE, a newcomer to the world of space with ambitions to send an unmanned probe to orbit Mars by 2021.

Mansoori's blast-off from the launchpad that sent Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space was roared on by a large crowd at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, where he has been feted as a hero.

Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper, lit up at the moment of the launch.

The 35-year-old former military pilot's whirlwind mission has had wall-to-wall coverage in Arab media.

- 'Call to mother' -

Mansoori has been active on Twitter where he posted photos of the UAE and Mecca -- Islam's holiest site -- from the space station.

He has donned Emirati dress on board, treated crew members to local snacks and participated in scientific experiments including a time-perception study that saw him sport a blindfold.

In a question-and-answer session with Emirati schoolchildren, the father of four said a call to his mother would be his top priority at the end of his journey of just over three hours back from the ISS.

The first Arab in outer space was Saudi Arabia's Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, who flew on a US shuttle mission in 1985.

Two years later, Syrian air force pilot Muhammed Faris spent a week aboard the Soviet Union's Mir space station.

As part of its space plans, the UAE has also announced its aim to become the first Arab country to send an unmanned probe to orbit Mars by 2021, naming it "Hope".

The return from space of Ovchinin and Hague a year on from a catastrophic launch failure will also be watched closely.

The two men took off in a Soyuz rocket for the ISS in October 2018, but an accident minutes after blast-off sent them plunging back to Earth.

It was the first such accident in Russia's post-Soviet history.

The pair launched again -- this time without hiccups -- to begin Ovchinin's second and Hague's first mission aboard the ISS in February.

The ISS -- a rare example of cooperation between Russia and the West -- has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometres (17,000 miles) an hour since 1998.