Supersonic jets and 12-metre deep pools: how Emirati astronauts will prepare for space travel at Nasa

Their training has already begun at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston

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Emirati astronauts are set to benefit from the same expert training undertaken by their American, European and Japanese contemporaries at Nasa facilities ahead of spaceflights.

An agreement struck between the US Space Agency and Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) will prepare four Emirati astronauts for future long duration missions involving complex tasks.

Maj Hazza Al Mansouri, who became the first Emirati to soar into space last September, and his back-up astronaut for the International Space Station journey, Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, are already well versed in the rigorous regime required for such missions.

The duo completed one year of basic training in Russia, which trained them physically and mentally for extreme gravitational forces and weightlessness experienced in space, as well as how to operate the Soyuz spacecraft in Russian.

Now they are part of the Nasa Astronaut Training Programme – the same one all American candidates are required to complete before flying into space.

This 30-month long programme will teach them how to carry out more complex tasks on the International Space Station, such as spacewalking, how to operate different systems of the space station and prepare them for longer space missions and leadership courses.

UAE’s two new astronauts - still to be chosen after a nationwide search - will join the next class of the programme, set to begin late 2021.

The National explains the intense training UAE's four astronauts are in for.

Learning how to spacewalk

The astronauts will be swimming in the world’s largest indoor pool to prepare for future spacewalking missions.

With 2.4 million litres of water and 12-metres deep, the pool at Nasa’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory simulates a weightless motion experienced in space.

The astronauts will have to perform underwater tasks while wearing their 115kg-heavy extravehicular activities (EVA) suit. In space and in the pool, humans can’t feel the suit’s weight as much.

For each hour spent in a spacewalk, seven hours of training in the pool is required.

There is a mock ISS environment set up at the bottom of the pool, where astronauts have to spend hours performing tasks.

Astronauts and cosmonauts routinely do spacewalks to carry out maintenance work outside of the ISS.

However, they are incredibly dangerous. In 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned when water leaked into his helmet.

Last year, Nasa astronaut Chris Cassidy’s wrist mirror broke off, releasing thousands of pieces of space junk.

This training for Emirati astronauts will come in handy if they are ever assigned spacewalking tasks or go to the Moon.

Flying supersonic jets

Astronauts have been training in T-38 jets to prepare for spaceflights since the US Space Shuttle days.

Training in the supersonic jets continues even now because it simulates spaceflight experience very closely.

It can fly up to Mach 1.6 and 12,000 metres high – that’s 3,000m higher than average airliners.

The pilot experiences seven G-forces, or seven times the gravity, because of the speed.

Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi endured eight G-forces during their training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia.

Both were strapped to a harness and swung around in a giant metal arm as part of the centrifuge test.

As an F-16 pilot, Maj Al Mansouri has 14 years of flying experience and is well familiar with the stomach-churning environment in space because of his eight days spent on the ISS.

However, Dr Al Neyadi comes from an IT background and will learn flying skills in this training.

A specialised pilot sits in the front of the jet, while the astronaut in training is in the back.

While the Emirati astronauts might receive some gravitational force training in Houston, most of it was completed in Russia with centrifuge, tilting table and rotating chair tests.

Russian language training

Human spaceflights have returned in the US, however, astronauts in training at Nasa still have to learn Russian in case they have to fly on a Russian Soyuz, which can be operated only in Russian.

The language will also help if astronauts in the Russian segment of the ISS.

UAE’s first two astronauts speak a decent level of the language, thanks to their previous training in Star City, Russia.

It will be a new experience for the two new astronauts who will join the corps next year.

The Dragon spacecraft by SpaceX can be operated in English.

Space station systems

Astronauts will be trained on the technical aspects of the ISS and how it operates.

The floating laboratory’s flight systems include the environmental control and life support system, computers and data management, the propulsion system, guidance, navigation and control, electrical power system, among others.

These systems help keep the space station running normally and create a safe environment for astronauts on board.

The Emirati astronauts will learn how to operate these systems.

What happens after they graduate?

Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi have temporarily relocated to Houston with their families until they complete the training programme.

Once they graduate, MBRSC will negotiate spaceflight opportunities with US commercial partners or with Russia.

A more mission-specific training will be required once they’ve been assigned a mission.

"The agreement is a pre-cursor to flight," Salem Al Marri, head of the astronaut programme, told The National.

“When you’re trained, then we’d be negotiating different flight opportunities and how we can procure those kinds of flights, and where we can have UAE astronauts on a longer duration space mission.”

“We will continuously be in discussion with Nasa and other commercial partners on flights to the ISS and beyond. We do have an eye on what Nasa is doing with Artemis (mission to moon) and the UAE is looking at where the global space exploration is going and we’re on board with that.”