DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates announced Monday that the first astronaut from the Gulf country will blast off on a mission to the International Space Station on September 25.
The oil-rich state has two astronauts in training, selected from more than 4,000 applicants, as it looks to get an ambitious space programme aimed at exploring Mars off the ground.
The authorities said a decision on which of the two astronauts would take off on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the eight-day mission will be made in May.
Both candidates — Hazza al-Mansouri, 35, and Sultan al-Neyadi, 37 — said they would be happy to see the UAE represented in space, no matter who makes the journey.
“Our flag will go, our dreams, our passion [for] this country to be the lead in this sector,” Mansouri said at a press conference.
“Our objective is higher… it is for the beliefs of this country and its objectives to reach space.”
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum, the UAE’s vice president and prime minister, vowed in 2017 to send four Emirati astronauts to the space station within five years.
The astronaut programme would make the UAE one of only a handful of states in the Middle East to have sent a person into space, as it looks to make good on a pledge to become a global leader in space exploration.
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”.
In the long-term, it says it is planning to build a “Science City” to replicate life on Mars and aims to create the first human settlement on the red planet by 2117.