Emirati astronaut tells of life in Russian isolation pod that simulates Moon mission

Saleh Al Ameri has been confined in small space with five international colleagues for three months - with another five months to go

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A cramped room, dehydrated food that astronauts eat and limited connection to the outside world – that is life inside the isolation bubble where an Emirati is part of a space research programme.

It has been almost three months since Saleh Al Ameri, 31, was locked inside a “spaceship travelling to the Moon and Mars” with five international crew members.

The eight-month Sirius 20/21 project is taking place inside the NEK experimental complex in Moscow. It has its own atmosphere and air pressure to create a space-like environment.

Researchers have been observing the crew’s behaviour using cameras installed throughout the centre to see how astronauts would fare during lengthy space travel.

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We will provide the crew members with Arabic dates and Arabic coffee. I hope that they will enjoy them and try to learn more about Arab culture
Saleh Al Ameri

They are measuring any psychological and physiological effects the crew may experience from living in near-isolation.

Mr Al Ameri is the first Arab to be part of an analogue mission – field tests that simulate long space journeys.

These are crucial to understanding how space flight affects the body and mind, as governments and private companies work towards landing people on the Moon and Mars.

He will not actually be going to the Moon but will help further research for deep space missions with his participation in this programme.

A room tour

Mr Al Ameri, a mechanical engineer, recently gave a tour of his room inside the complex. The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) shared the video on social media.

“This is my room. It is small, yet sufficient,” he said.

The closet-sized space has a single bed against a wall, a two-door cupboard and a small desk next to the bed, on which sit two laptops and medical equipment.

He said each crew member is required to measure their blood pressure, temperature, stress levels and other parameters immediately after waking up.

“We fill the data in a table," he said. "We send it to the doctors who monitor changes in our blood pressure, temperatures that occur while we are in here and the effects of isolation in our bodies.

“These parameters are very critical and closely monitored. We send them to the experts every morning at 7am.”

In the video, he showed off a UAE flag and logos of the space centre hung on the cupboard.

“I also hung a few things on the wall that motivate me and provide psychological support, such as the MBRSC logo and the UAE flag,” he said.

“They push me to give me the best for the mission.”

Mr Al Ameri has been in touch with family members, including his wife, parents and siblings, through emails and video calls.

However, each crew member has limited time on the internet as they follow a strict schedule that includes experiments and exercise.d reads books.

Food on the menu

Participants have been provided with the same dehydrated food that astronauts on the International Space Station eat.

Mr Al Ameri has been given the same Emirati meals that Hazza Al Mansouri, the first Emirati man in space, took with him to the ISS.

These include madrooba (chicken and rice), saloona (chicken, fish, lamb or beef stew), and balaleet (vermicelli dessert).

Saleh Al Ameri, front right, began the first UAE analogue mission as the primary analogue astronaut on November 4. The eight-month project is part of Sirius-21 and is taking place in an isolated environment in Moscow along with participants from the US and Russia. Photo: Dubai Media Office.

“There are many varieties of dishes, including Russian, Japanese, American and the food Hazza took with him to the space station,” he told The National in a previous interview.

“We will also provide the crew members with Arabic dates and Arabic coffee. I hope that they will enjoy them and try to learn more about Arab culture.”

Experiments

In the first few weeks, the analogue astronauts used virtual reality headsets to “fly a spaceship”. They were required to dock it successfully with the ISS and Lunar Gateway – a planned space station around the Moon.

They also drove a lunar rover on the Moon, collecting samples and transferring them back to the lunar base.

Saleh Al Ameri uses a virtual reality headset to 'fly a spaceship to the Moon'. Photo: MBRSC

They will also be performing simulated spacewalks outside of the floating station.

The experiments are part of a five-year research programme by Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems and Nasa’s Human Research Programme.

It involves three Sirius missions, the first of which was completed in 2019 when six crew members lived in isolation for four months.

The final and most challenging mission is expected to last for 12 months.

The UAE plans to take part in several analogue missions as part of long-term plans to send Emiratis to the Moon and to build a human settlement on Mars by 2117.

MBRSC is building a Dh500 million ($136m) Mars simulation city in Dubai, with construction expected to begin this year.

The design includes analogue facilities that can be used by Emiratis and other international participants in the future.

Updated: January 22, 2022, 7:45 AM
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