The UAE's astronauts currently in Houston will soon learn how to operate SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for an upcoming trip to and from the International Space Station.
The country secured a six-month stay at the orbiting science laboratory as part of the Nasa-Space Crew-6 mission, with a launch scheduled next spring from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre on a Falcon 9 rocket.
Sultan Al Neyadi and Hazza Al Mansouri, the first Emirati to fly to space in 2019, now qualify for Nasa-led missions after completing a two-year basic training programme by Nasa in Houston. Only one of them will go to space, while the other will be the back-up astronaut.
Nasa said in a statement to The National that they are now training for the forthcoming mission.
“The astronaut corps for the UAE has been in training with Nasa at the Johnson Space Centre since 2019 under a separate bilateral agreement,” the US space agency said.
“Their training to date has been equivalent to Nasa Astronaut Candidates-level training, which includes spacewalk training, onboard systems and T-38 training. The UAE crew will continue on with training on the Crew Dragon spacecraft and start training on the international partner segments.
“By the Crew-6 launch date (April 2023), Nasa expects to have the assigned UAE crew member trained as a fully qualified Expedition crew member.”
Both astronauts previously learnt the systems of Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft in 2018 and 2019, when the UAE teamed up with the country to fly Maj Al Mansouri to the ISS. Mr Al Neyadi was the back-up astronaut for the mission.
The Soyuz capsule was designed for the Soviet space programme and has been operational since the 1960s.
While the design of the capsule is outdated compared with the new Crew Dragon, it is still a reliable transportation vehicle to the ISS, with a very low failure rate.
SpaceX’s capsule is also more spacious than the Soyuz, with enough space for seven crew members, compared with three seats on Russia’s spacecraft.
The Dragon successfully completed its first crewed flight to the station in 2019 after launching on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. This helped to return human spaceflight launches to US soil once again, after relying on the Russians for more than a decade.
Since then, SpaceX has launched four crewed flights for Nasa, with a fifth one planned for later this year.
To train for a ride on the Dragon, astronauts take part in simulations that focus on undocking and departing from the space station.
The simulator, designed to be a replica of the capsule, has flight-realistic hardware, displays and seats.
During the training, astronauts put their spacesuits on and configure the spacecraft for departure.
“Astronaut crews regularly train for all phases of flight, using simulations to practice normal operations and respond to any unexpected issues,” Nasa said on its website.
“These simulations typically include multiple ‘runs’ for a given day, with crew and flight controllers practising a specific phase of the mission.
“Using simulated data to train personnel, simulations introduce system failures and other challenges to give teams the opportunity to prepare for and understand potential anomalies that could arise during a spaceflight, all the while arming the crew with the skills needed for effectively overcoming these challenges.”
Currently, the astronauts are receiving more spacewalk training, although it has not been confirmed yet whether an Emirati will venture outside the ISS this time.
If so, it would be the first time an Arab astronaut performs a spacewalk.
Dr Al Neyadi, who could be the assigned astronaut for this mission, has been posting regular updates on his training on social media.
“In addition to the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Lab) training, we use the Partial Gravity Simulator, POGO,” he said on Twitter.
“The system offsets the weight in a way that if l release my grip, I would float away with a minimum push.”
NBL, the world’s largest pool at 12 metres deep and 2.4 million litres of water, is where astronauts train for spacewalks.
They wear 130-kilomgrame spacesuits while performing tasks beneath the pool.
This helps to simulate microgravity and allows astronauts to work on a replica of the space station placed underwater.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s newest astronauts, Mohammad Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi, started their basic training with Nasa in January.
They will soon be training on T38 Talons supersonic jets.