May 30, 2009 05:28 PM
The sky's the limit for extreme sports fan who aims to be Iraq's first man in space
He has been hailed as Iraq's superman: a role model for the nation's youth who flies, glides, dives and races motorcycles. He has already made the Guinness World Records by taking part in the first ever skydive above Mount Everest. But last week Fareed Lafta, a Dubai-based extreme sports fanatic, returned to Baghdad to seek backing for his ultimate ambition – to be the first Iraqi in space.
"I want to represent my country, and to be one of the men like Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin, who showed with all humility what it is to be a good human," said Iraq's pioneer cosmonaut. In his badged blue flightsuit and cap, he cut a curious figure as he lobbied for support among the suits, robes and turbans in Iraq's parliament.
"I don't know the mechanisms, I am not a politician, and I don't want to be. I just need help to send me into space," he said as he dropped in to the office of a leading MP from the Sadrist bloc. Before he leaves the earth's atmosphere, Fareed, 30, plans to become the first civilian to skydive above Baghdad since the war – a mark of the improved security environment. He has brought his rig and parachute with him and is ready to go as soon as he can get clearance from the authorities.
"Diving over a city that has suffered from war is recognized in the skydiving community as a symbol that the war is over. Because I want to say to all the world that we are now in peace, and it's not war any more," he said.
Fareed's growing fame in Iraq is timely. "Iraqi youth need a role model like Fareed to take their mind off guns and violence," said Ammar Shaabandar of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Iraq.
Fareed has been addicted to adventure since he was a boy. "I would climb to the top of the cupboard in my bedroom and jump off. My mum got mad and punished me because I made a mess of my room. But it was the informal start of my career, aged five. My parents still think I'm crazy."
Raised in Baghdad, he left with his family for Dubai at the outbreak of war in 2003. There he continued a boyhood passion for motorcycle racing, quickly turning professional. He also became a scuba diving instructor and started freediving, achieving a lung-busting depth of 80 metres. He then took to the air, hang-gliding and paragliding to an international standard and gaining a private pilot's licence.
But it was the decision to take up skydiving that really changed his life, he said. He moved to Russia last year as part of an international team planning a record-breaking jump over the Himalayas. In Nepal they spent 21 days acclimatising before the jump, in October 2008.
"We jumped from 30,000 feet, only about 1,500 feet or so above the peak of Mount Everest," recalled Fareed, who sports the Iraqi flag on his jumpsuit. "It was amazing, truly amazing, to be soaring above Mount Everest. For a few minutes, I was emperor of world. I reached nirvana, absolute happiness."
The kick from his Everest exploits was not enough, however. So last March, the restless Fareed returned to Russia to train as Iraq's first cosmonaut. His fitness and skill levels meant that he completed the training in two months. Usually it takes trainees six months to learn how to breathe properly and cope with the G-forces, he said.
He specialised in space video and photography, and he wants to film while doing a walk outside the space shuttle.
For all his achievements, Iraq's lone superman confesses to being lonely. Iraqi girls do not want to come near a man who lives life at such a breathless pace, it seems. "Look at my hair," said the 30-year-old, who is visibly greying. "That's the result of all the adrenalin."
News link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/may/27/first-iraqi-space-fareed-lafta