A UAE astronaut who saw off competition from thousands of hopefuls to be part of the country's milestone space mission has credited his love of jiu-jitsu for propelling him to new heights.
Sultan Al Neyadi played a crucial and selfless role in the UAE's first voyage to the stars, acting as an ever-reliable member of the back-up crew as Maj Hazza Al Mansouri became the first Emirati to go into space.
Although he ended up staying on the ground as Maj Al Mansouri embarked on an eight-day odyssey on board the International Space Station last month, he went through the same rigorous training regime as his colleague.
Ready and able if called upon to step into the breach at the last moment, Dr Al Neyadi feels his martial-arts skills were vital to keeping him in peak condition.
“I have trained in jiu-jitsu for almost seven years now and the benefits that the sport brought me were clearly visible during our training process," said Dr Al Neyadi, who was one of 4,022 hopefuls to apply to become the UAE's first astronaut after a nationwide search was launched in 2017.
"I was flexible, had good physical strength and was able to focus mentally for long periods.”
Both Dr Al Neyadi and Maj Al Mansouri spent close to a year undergoing intense training – pushing them to their physical and mental limits – ahead of lift-off on September 25.
In addition to daily visits to the gym to maintain peak fitness, the pair spent time in a human centrifuge – a huge spinning arm that rotates at a speed of 96 kilometres an hour to simulate the g-force of lift-off, three times that of gravity on Earth.
The simulation prepares astronauts for the unique challenges of space flight, where g-forces push blood away from the brain and cause it to pool in the lower parts of the body, resulting in unconsciousness.
A survival training exercise in Star City outside Moscow required them to fend for themselves in the freezing wilderness. Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi spent three days in a forest learning to survive in harsh winter conditions – in case of a crash landing in a hostile environment.
Dr Al Neyadi, who holds a doctorate in Information Technology and served as a UAE military network security engineer, said his jiu-jitsu training was particularly useful when he took on the centrifuge.
"I had a load which weighed eight times my body weight sitting on my chest and it was very similar to passages in jiu-jitsu where the opponent has side control or is in the mount position," he said.
"In the centrifuge test, the feeling was very similar to a struggle in a jiu-jitsu fight but my training helped me pull through and I completed two runs of the centrifuge test successfully.”
Jiu-jitsu has been an important part of Dr Al Neyadi's life, acting as a stress-reliever as well as keeping him in good shape.
He even attempted to show off his abilities to a seasoned astronaut, joking he may have chosen a tough target.
“During the first fit-check of my Sokol space suit in Baikonur, I had a chance to test my modest jiu-jitsu skills by attempting to submit an astronaut.
"It didn’t work because these guys literally have no necks and their joints are very flexible.”