Dubai Police, Etihad pilots and more than 1,000 women vying to be UAE's next astronaut

Hazza Al Mansouri, the first Emirati astronaut, will help to select the latest two members of the country's space fleet

Etihad Airways pilots, Dubai Police officers and more than 1,000 women are in the running to become the UAE's latest astronaut - and the first Emirati to blast into space will play a part in making the call.

The UAE will name its next two astronauts in January, officials said on Tuesday at a conference announcing details of the second round of applications for the lofty role.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre received more than 3,000 applications from Emiratis keen to follow in the footsteps of the country's first man in space, Hazza Al Mansouri, and fellow astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, who was part of the back-up crew for his mission on the International Space Station last September.

An astronaut needs to have many capabilities while on the space station

About a third of the applicants are women, with the average age of the thousands of hopefuls being 28.

Salem Al Marri, head of the UAE Astronaut Programme at MBRSC, is hopeful more women will reach for the stars.

“I’d definitely like to see an increase in the number of women and a more diverse range in terms of capabilities – that’s what we are targeting going forward,” said Mr Al Marri.

“We’d like to see a teacher, possibly a medical doctor. I think that’d be really important because the majority of Hazza’s space experiments were on his body and, with a physician, you can allocate different types of missions for them.”

The highest number of applications have come from members of Dubai Police and Etihad Airways, with the most represented emirate being Abu Dhabi, followed by Dubai and Sharjah.

Maj Al Mansouri said his advice to the candidates is to have a versatile skill set.

“An astronaut needs to have many capabilities while on the space station – he or she needs to be a plumber, know how to do maintenance, how to report to the ground station daily,” he said.

After the applicants have been reviewed, a committee consisting of 10 specialists, including Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi, will shortlist the applicants based on initial interviews and evaluations. This will be followed by the selection process.

The next UAE space mission has not been announced yet, but all four astronauts will in with a chance of going to space.

Depending on the type of mission it is, any one of the four astronauts can be chosen to go based on their skill set and experience.

Maj Al Mansouri is keen on returning to the ISS for the next mission, but has also set his sights for a place much further away.

"I would love to go to the moon," he told The National.

The deadline for applications is March 31 but could be extended to May 1.

The medical checks and group assessment are due to take place in June, followed by the first interview round from August to September.

The final interviews will be carried out in November.

“Those astronauts will conduct important scientific experiments and will provide new educational answers that will be necessary for the youth,” said Mr Al Marri.

“A big number of applicants applied and that represents the passion among people to place our country on a high level.”

Potential astronauts must be aged 18 or older, be in possession of a Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree and have to be Emirati.

Despite the strict criteria in place, such has been the enthusiasm for the space programme that people as young as 17 and as old and 60 put themselves forward.

A total of 17 per cent of applications in the new hunt for an Emirati astronaut are from pilots and 31 per cent are from engineers.

Nasser Al Ghafri, who teaches pilots how to fly the Airbus A380, made it as the one of the final nine candidates in the first round of the astronaut programme and is hoping it is second time lucky for him.

“When I wasn’t selected for the first batch, I wasn’t disappointed. It gave me encouragement to try again – that is what I want to teach my kids,” Mr Al Ghafri said.

He has 10 years of experience in the special forces and spent 16 years as a captain at a commercial airline.

He said he hopes his knowledge from the previous round and professional experience will help him get selected as an astronaut.

Ahmad Al Ali is another Emirati who has reapplied. The commercial pilot has logged more than 8,000 hours of flying time.

“I am glad I applied the first time – it was a great learning experience,” he said.

MBRSC used Russia’s Soyuz rocket to send its first Emirati to space. Mr Al Marri said they are currently talking to different partners for the next mission.

“It is exciting that SpaceX will be launching soon, Boeing will be following that and you still have the opportunity with the Soyuz,” he said.

“The strategy we are following is working closely with our partners and we are looking at the different opportunities that do arise.”