Emirati mechanical engineer Saleh Al Ameri emerged from eight months inside a Russian isolation pod on Sunday after completing a mission aimed at boosting understanding of deep space travel.
He was one of a six-strong team of analogue astronauts, along with three Russian and two American colleagues, who took part in the Sirius 20/21 project.
They had no internet or social media access throughout the experiment, and contact with family was limited.
The crew, cocooned in the space laboratory since November 4, said a collective spirit and kindness helped them deal with 240 days of isolation from the outside world.
They were led by crew commander Oleg Blinov, a test cosmonaut of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.
Mr Al Ameri, 31, was selected for the mission, with his colleague Abdullah Al Hammadi, 35, kept on standby as reserve.
Emirati tells of challenges
“Everyone worked really hard on this project and I would like to thank them for their support,” said Mr Al Ameri, shortly after emerging from the isolation chamber, which included a small private bedroom with a bed and desk.
“The most difficult time was in the beginning when we spent a lot of time dong scientific experiments.
“It took more than two hours just to read the instructions and to figure out how we could carry out the experiment perfectly.
“During the middle of the mission when we had a routine, we did the same experiments repeatedly — that was a challenge and also when we were running out of food, that was also a difficult time.”
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, praised the success of the mission in a post on Twitter on Sunday.
He said it marked a "new achievement for the Emirates and Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
Stages of the experiment included an exit from the Earth’s orbit, flight to an assumed planet, landing of a module, scientific research and a simulated return to Earth.
Sirius-21 took place in the terrestrial medical technical experimental complex at the Ras Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow.
The complex is equipped with unique facilities which allow modelling of space flights of various durations.
The project involved simulation of conditions experienced during a long-lasting manned space flight and its goal was to simulate the key conditions of a prospective interplanetary expedition.
Each participant had their biometric data recorded for the duration of their time inside the laboratory to measure the psychological and physiological impact of living and working for long periods inside an extreme environment, such as a space mission.
More than 80 research experiments were carried out during their time inside the module.
Results will be used for long-term planning for future space travel.
“The past eight months have proven to not only be challenging but rewarding for crew members, the entire Sirius project and the global scientific community,” said Adnan Al Ras, Mars 2117 programme manager at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).
“The greatest achievement of this mission is that it has proven, with international collaboration and crew members we can successfully achieve deep space exploration.
“The Sirius project has proven to be a viable platform for collaboration, and a viable platform to develop the science and technologies that will enable us in our future endeavours.
“The UAE and MBRC are proud to be apart of this mission, it is an important milestone for our long-term Mars strategy.”
The Arab world’s first analogue mission included a spacewalk via a virtual reality headset.
It is hoped the project will boost the UAE’s space programme and advance its human research capability, in preparation to one day send an Emirati to the Moon.
When asked if she would accept a place on a mission to Mars, American flight engineer Ashley Kowalski said she would jump at the chance.
“It would be a historic moment, so I would have the pleasure of being a part of that,” she said.
“Sirius 21 was a huge opportunity for all of us. It was a challenging task, emotionally, mentally, physically and psychologically.
“It is not something that everyone can do, but our team has managed it and navigated through the ups and downs.”
Sights set on the Moon and Mars
Ms Kowalski said lessons learnt in the isolated environment were applicable beyond space.
“When humans are living and working in confined spaces on the ground, under the ground and under the sea — or during a pandemic or a long illness — what we have learnt here will also apply,” she said.
“This will help us when we return to the moon and onwards towards Mars.”
William Brown, a US researcher, said being cut off from the outside world was the biggest challenge.
“You are isolated from the ones you love and so many things that are special, but we faced it with our crew members by our side — we became a band of brothers and sisters,” he said.
“Our challenges were two-fold; to see if we could stand the loss of the personal and to unite together for the sake of science and humanity, and connect people together with diverse cultures and personalities.
“We faced that challenge together and made it as successful as possible by respecting each other and learning from one another.
“Kindness was one of the biggest components of our success.”