With his safe return to Earth, Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi has joined a very select group of people – that tiny proportion of humanity who have made the perilous journey into orbit to experience the void of space, witness the sun rise over the rim of our planet and feel the weightlessness of zero gravity.
Dr Al Neyadi’s stint in orbit was a milestone for the UAE, too, and a symbol of the country’s ambitions in the realm of science and exploration. Welcoming the astronaut back, President Sheikh Mohamed wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Together with the national work teams, you made a historic Emirati achievement and contributed to the service of science and humanity. With all of you, our ambitions in the field of space are great and continuous.”
Fewer than 270 people from 21 countries have ever visited the International Space Station. Dr Al Neyadi is unique among them for having achieved some important firsts. In April, he donned a 145-kg space suit to step out of the station for a six-and-a-half-hour maintenance operation on its exterior. In doing so, he became not only the first Arab astronaut to go on an extended mission but also the first Arab to perform a spacewalk.
This was just one example of how Dr Al Neyadi’s work in space connected with the Arab world. From wearing a kandura while recording an Eid Al Adha greeting from orbit, to welcoming Saudi astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi – the first Arab woman in space – with dates and water on board the ISS in May, he has not only been a first-rate ambassador for the UAE but, as a family man and accomplished professional, a relatable and admirable figure who has connected with many Arabs and Muslims around the world. Using his camera to photograph Arab cities from space, including shots of the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, the Iraqi capital Baghdad and the holy city of Makkah, he provided an aerial tour of the region for his more than half a million followers on social media. His photos were accompanied by heart-warming messages that added to his popularity.
His mission has taken place at an intriguing time for space exploration. Despite the fact there have been no manned missions to the Moon since December 1972, travel to the edge of space has never been more frequent. The rise of companies that can take paying customers to the edge of the atmosphere could arguably lead to space tourism becoming a more everyday phenomenon. In contrast, however, Dr Al Neyadi spent his months on the station conducting more than 200 scientific investigations and outreach activities in the demanding environment of the ISS.
Most of his work involved research on how microgravity affects the human body and mind, but he also harvested plants from the ISS nursery, sending tomatoes and leaves back for analysis on Earth as space agencies try out methods to produce food in space. He also took part on many online chats with people back on Earth, describing to many school pupils and students his work and how it felt to live in such a challenging environment.
The stresses of life in orbit are significant, and co-operation is vital for survival. Here, Dr Al Neyadi, building on the experience of Hazza Al Mansouri, the first Emirati in space, showed the Emirates working closely with astronauts and space agencies from other countries on the ISS. It is a tangible example of what peaceful international co-operation can achieve.
The 24-hour journey home with three colleagues to splashdown off the coast of Florida will surely have been one that Dr Al Neyadi has been eagerly looking forward to after months away from friends and family. Now the next stage of his journey begins – that of a return to the UAE and a tour of the country to share his experiences from six months in space.
It is true that Dr Al Neyadi may now be a member of an exclusive club, but it is one that happily shares its experience and knowledge. It may be however, that the mission’s biggest insight is this one: there’s no place like home.