Who is Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi?

The astronaut has been assigned a six-month mission to the International Space Station

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It will be a momentous journey years in the making when Sultan Al Neyadi embarks on a mission to the International Space Station in 2023.

Dr Al Neyadi, 41, a former IT professional from Al Ain, blazed a trail alongside Hazza Al Mansouri after being selected in 2018 as the UAE's first astronauts.

A year later, he told of his excitement as his colleague Maj Mansouri became the first Emirati to travel on board the ISS, on an eight-day trip.

The father-of-five served as a back-up astronaut on that mission, training alongside Maj Mansouri who made headlines around the world as the first Arab on the ISS and first Emirati in space.

On launch day, an excited but nervous Dr Al Neyadi watched as a Russian Soyuz rocket carried his colleague into space.

“I’m very excited to see him launch,” he had said moments before lift-off. "The most incredible moment for me will be when he takes the first picture of the UAE from space."

Dr Al Neyadi spent the next six hours glued to his phone, watching a live feed of the Soyuz hurtling towards the ISS.

“That was a dream fulfilled and it gives you a sense that the UAE is really serious,” he told The National in a previous interview.

Now, after four-and-a-half years' training, he is preparing for his own historic feat — the Arab world’s first long-duration space mission.

He has quite the upgrade for his ride into space — Elon Musk’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket and a Dragon Crew Capsule.

Instead of the cumbersome Soyuz suit, he will wear a sleek SpaceX suit.

Extensive training

Dr Al Neyadi's journey through the UAE’s space programme started in 2017, when he applied to become an astronaut.

He comes from an IT background, having served as a network security engineer for the Armed Forces for many years.

He holds a doctorate in information technology from Griffith University in Australia and a degree in electronics and communications engineering from the University of Brighton in England.

“When the astronaut programme was first launched, more than 4,000 people applied, a lot of Emiratis wanted to be part of it,” he said.

Soon after selection, Dr Al Neyadi and Maj Al Mansouri, a former fighter jet pilot, took off to Russia’s Star City to start their 12-month training for the country’s first space mission.

They learnt the Russian language, carried out survival training in the brutally cold winter and spent hours each day in gravity simulators.

They also travelled across Europe for short training programmes.

In 2020, the UAE reached an agreement with Nasa to train its astronauts.

From 2020 to early 2022, Dr Al Neyadi and Maj Al Mansouri were completing the basic training programme at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

The training was much more advanced. They spent hours underneath the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, flew supersonic jets and learnt how to perform spacewalks.

They travelled to Canada to learn how to operate the robotic arm on the space station, which helps receive cargo.

Their graduation this year made them eligible for Nasa-led missions to space.

Now, Dr Al Neyadi is undergoing mission-specific training in Houston, including learning how to operate the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

He will serve as mission specialist and as an operator on the space station.

New life in Houston

Dr Al Neyadi has spent the vast bulk of his life in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi but as a Nasa-trained astronaut his current residence is in Houston, at least until his six-month mission on the ISS has ended.

The completion of the basic training programme, and the UAE's growing partnership with Nasa, means Emirati astronauts could be part of more US-led missions in future, including to the Moon.

"I'm really privileged and happy to be part of the UAE's space programme," Dr Al Neyadi said.

"We are looking to conduct even more successful missions and hopefully this will be only the beginning.

"There are many, many good plans of going back to the Moon. I think we will be a key player in that one as well. We're ready and excited."

The astronaut is not alone in Houston. Maj Al Mansouri, who Dr Al Neyadi refers to as his brother because of the time they have spent together training, lives next door.

Meanwhile, the UAE's newest recruits Mohammed Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi have been training in Houston since January and are in the earlier stages of the programme.

Updated: July 26, 2022, 1:12 PM
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