The UAE’s first astronaut, Maj Hazza Al Mansouri, has told of the ups and downs of his intense training at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre.
Maj Al Mansouri trains with his colleague, reserve astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, at the US space agency.
The two previously trained in Russia for a year to learn the Russian language, know more about the Soyuz spacecraft and familiarise their bodies with the harsh conditions in space.
But the 30-month training programme at Nasa is more intense, Maj Al Mansouri said.
It requires learning different skill sets, such as performing spacewalks, mastering the systems of the International Space Station and flying supersonic jets in preparation for future space missions.
This week, Maj Al Mansouri received a small break from the training to attend the Global Space Exploration Conference in St Petersburg, Russia.
He spoke exclusively to The National about his experience so far.
“It’s really a nice break for me from the ongoing training at Nasa,” he said.
“We have reached a high level of training there. We have gone through different trainings to prepare us for future missions.”
Learning to perform spacewalks
Astronauts learn how to perform spacewalks by spending hours at the bottom of the world's largest indoor swimming pool while wearing 115-kilogram extravehicular activities suits.
Nasa's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory has a pool that is 12 metres deep and holds 2.4 million litres of water. It simulates a weightless motion experienced in space.
A mock-up of the ISS is built beneath it, where astronauts perform tasks as part of the training.
“One of my favourite parts of the training is to go underwater for six hours with a pressurised suit to do different types of tasks that will prepare us for future missions,” Maj Al Mansouri said.
“It’s not easy being underwater for so long, with the heavy suit on, but it’s the best way to simulate a spacewalking experience. It’s tough, but now we feel prepared for it.
“We have gone under the water to learn the different types of systems, such as life support, working with robotics and what it would be like spacewalking with the EVA suit on.”
Astronauts perform routine spacewalks outside of the ISS to carry out maintenance on the station.
The task is extremely dangerous and requires advanced skills.
On Wednesday, Nasa astronaut Shane Kimbrough and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet ended a spacewalk early after they lost data on their spacesuits due to major upgrades at the station.
In 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned during training when the pool's water leaked into his helmet.
In 2019, Nasa astronaut Chris Cassidy's wrist mirror broke, releasing thousands of pieces of space junk.
"We are also being prepared for any kind of emergency situation," Maj Al Mansouri said.
The UAE astronauts have been training with other accomplished astronauts such as Mr Cassidy.
Flying supersonic jets
The programme also involves spending hours flying the T-38 jets that Nasa astronauts train on for decades.
Maj Al Mansouri is a former fighter jet pilot and has clocked hundreds of flying hours.
Mr Al Neyadi has an IT background but learned how to pilot the aircraft during the ongoing training.
The supersonic jet can fly up to Mach 1.6 and an altitude of 12,000 metres – 3,000m higher than average airliners.
Mach Speed is when an object moves faster than the speed of sound.
The pilot experiences seven G-forces, or seven times the force of gravity, because of the speed.
"Sultan is also flying on the T-38 because this will help build the skill set and mindset of a pilot, especially when making decisions and dealing with different scenarios in a very short period of time," he said.
Muhammad Al Mulla, one of the new Emirati astronauts, is an experienced helicopter pilot at Dubai Police and will begin training at Nasa later this year.
Nora Al Matrooshi, the first Arab woman astronaut, is an engineer and will also be part of the training.
Upon completion, all four Emirati astronauts will qualify for future Nasa-led missions.