It has been one year since the UAE’s landmark mission to space and the country's first Emirati astronauts have now set their sights on the Moon.
Maj Hazza Al Mansouri became the first Emirati to go into space on September 25, 2019, as well as the first Arab to board the International Space Station (ISS).
The former F-16 pilot and Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, the reserve astronaut, are now part of Nasa’s Astronaut Candidate Training Programme, which they hope will help them reach the moon through the US’ Artemis mission.
The pair spoke to The National from the Johnson Space Centre in Houston on the first anniversary of UAE's mission to space.
“It is a next chapter for us and the UAE astronaut programme be training in Houston,” said Maj Al Mansouri, who has moved to the city in Texas with his family for the next 30 months.
“Within one year of my mission, we’ve started training. This type of programme is a big message to the whole world that we are serious and we want to be part of space exploration and flights."
He said a moon landing was the natural next step for the Emirates' space ambitions.
“The moon is in the horizon in terms of a mission that is approaching (Artemis). The UAE would want be part of those human space exploration missions. I always dreamt of seeing earth rising from the horizon of the moon. Maybe it is something I’ll see in the future,” he said.
Nasa plans to put the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024, with an unmanned test flight scheduled for 2021.
The Emirati astronauts’ training at Nasa will pave the way for them and two other Emiratis, who will join the next batch of trainees once selected next year, to be part of such missions.
A new patch for UAE's astronaut corps – shown first to The National by Maj Al Mansouri – illustrates the country's vision for exploration beyond Earth's orbit. Worn by astronauts on their suits to represent their countries, the UAE's patch shows an astronaut standing on the moon, looking towards Mars, with Earth behind them.
“Hopefully, this [the training] will be just the beginning – there are many good plans of going back to the moon. I think the UAE will be a key player for that as well. We are ready and we’re happy to be here,” said Dr Al Neyadi.
The UAE is the first non-ISS partner country to participate in Nasa’s training programme, which all American astronauts are required to complete before moving on to mission-specific training.
“We’ll be engaged in a different level of training. This will allow us to spend more time in space,” said Dr Al Neyadi.
“As you know the UAE's last mission was a short flight. The training we conducted in Russia was for that mission and it was successful. Now, the goal is to spend more time on the ISS and be engaged with different activities like spacewalk and maintaining the station."
Their one-year training programme in Russia prepared them physically and mentally for extreme gravitational forces and weightlessness experienced in space, as well as how to operate the Soyuz spacecraft in Russian.
In Houston, their training will prepare for them long-haul space missions and spacewalks.
To learn how to spacewalk, they will be swimming for hours in the world’s largest indoor pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
They will wear a 115kg extravehicular activities (EVA) suit and perform tasks under water, where a mock ISS environment is set up.
The training also involves flying supersonic T-38 jets to simulate the experience of gravitational forces and improve quick decision-making skills.
“For non-pilot astronauts, there is usually a rear seat for training but they’ll get all of the qualifications to fly the T-38,” said Dr Al Neyadi, who has an engineering background.
“The most important thing is to be able to handle the aircraft and maintaining a level of vigilance, as well as be able to communicate with the ground team, pilot and conduct manoeuvres that are required.”
Other parts of the programme includes robotics and learning the major systems of the space station, such as environmental control and life support system, computers and data management, the propulsion system, guidance, navigation and control, electrical power system, among others.
Learning Russian is also required, though the UAE's astronauts accomplished this last year.
“I think I’m most looking forward to the EVA training inside the big pool,” said Maj Al Mansouri. “I have the experience on board the station and I want to compare the two.”
Since Maj Al Mansoori's mission to the ISS, the UAE has begun its search for the next two Emirati astronauts.
A probe, called Hope, was launched to Mars in July. It is expected to arrive to the Red Planet by February, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Union’s formation.