Stuff that has everyone all agog with excitement
In December last year, when the rest of the world was gearing up for the holiday season, Bader Al Moulah was 45 feet underwater in Florida, learning to survive. He was at the Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s only existing undersea laboratory where divers conduct excursions, NASA’s astronauts prepare for missions and scientists study marine life. Articles have delved into how they are able to remain underwater for days by following the techniques of saturation diving, and the reef base’s environment has often been compared to space. Bader was the first Kuwaiti there, but he wasn’t on some sort of end-of-year record-breaking spree. The 29-year-old was there to train and work towards becoming an astronaut, possibly even Kuwait’s first astronaut.
Reaching for the moon
“In Arabic, my name means full moon,” he says, when we speak. “So when I was very young, my mom used to tell me to always look at the moon and smile. My love for space began from there.”
As a kid, imagining the vast expanse of space made him feel even smaller but not that it curbed his curiosity, which grew unabated. He remembers being the only child in class who picked up science and non-fiction books at the library. “I saw a picture of Bruce McCandless II floating above earth in an encyclopedia about space — that was a big, pivotal moment for me. As I grew older, I read about various space programmes like Apollo online.”
“I loved the book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and began to look up to him because we both had similar journeys,” he continues. “When he first started out as an astronaut, there was no Canadian Space Agency. I am also beginning my journey without a space agency in my country.”
But he preferred to keep his dream a secret throughout his childhood. “I just thought there were many other dreams that were more attainable and I was vocal about those. Once I say something out loud, I feel like I am accountable for it — I am just one of those people. Becoming an astronaut just felt impossible,” he says. “Also, saying that you want to be an astronaut especially in a country where you don’t have a space agency or where there are no astronauts, invites ridicule.”
In college, he opted to study engineering. “While these aren’t cookie cutter requirements, these are common traits that astronauts share. So I’ve tried to stay on that trajectory just in case the opportunity arrives.”
Disney and reality TV
In 2015, he accomplished one of his life’s biggest goals — working for Disney as an Imagineer in Orlando, Florida. “After working there, I realised that I can achieve anything if I put my heart into it. So I felt I should pursue this goal of becoming an astronaut that I’ve had my whole life.” A year later, he went to Australia to complete his masters in architecture — his thesis, unsurprisingly, was on designing a futuristic space centre in Kuwait.
In 2019, he participated in the reality show The Astronauts. According to the show’s website, participants who come from all over the Middle East, “take on elements of the most extreme and demanding selection process, normally reserved for real-life astronaut candidates”. Bader didn’t win, but met his idol Chris Hadfield who was one of the show’s judges. “He was so professional and very respectful. He motivated me and gave me a lot of feedback when I got eliminated from the show.”
“Half of the challenges were at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC), Star City in Moscow,” he continues. “It was an honour, as we used the same facilities that the astronauts were using. We put on the same suits that were flown into space.” The show also helped him realise that this was not actually some audacious dream. “I realised that I don’t have a fear of the training, and can actually do this.” Following Chris’s advice, Bader says he kept himself updated by completing courses in aerospace from institutes like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The sky’s the limit
In April 2021, he headed to Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), described as a ‘Mars and Moon exploration analog research station’, to participate in one of their missions. The isolated facility and its ‘Mars-like site’ are on the Mauna Loa volcano.
An article in Popular Science describes it as a place where people “live and train together for weeks or even months at a time — disconnected from the world outside the dome, they’re preparing to one day live on the moon and Mars” and that their missions “simulate, to the best possible degree, what life could look like on non-terrestrial surfaces”.
Bader says people are encouraged to research and carry out experiments. “So my study was on the kind of minimal medical training that you could give every astronaut. I worked with an organisation of surgeons in Kuwait who volunteered to train me and came up with three medical procedures, which you could do with minimal experience as long as you learn it well enough: a procedure to treat tension pneumothorax using a needle, suturing lacerations and applying casts. One of my crewmates volunteered to be my patient and towards the end of my mission at HI-SEAS, we simulated real surgical procedures together.”
“We wore space suits, and were completely alone,” he continues. “You could really feel the isolation — we had access to the Internet for only two hours a day, to check our email. And if we wanted a specific file, we had to request the ‘mission control’ in Oahu and they would send it by email.”
His next adventure came last year, at the Aquarius Reef Base. “I am not sure many people realise what a rare opportunity it is to go and train there,” laughs Bader, who is also a scuba diver. “It was an honour to take my flag and represent my country there.”
Bader and his group were trained on how to survive a life-threatening situation, like an explosion. “We simulated the whole thing,” he recalls. “You stay underwater until your body, blood and tissues are saturated with nitrogen — you can’t come up to the surface too quickly, or else you will get decompression sickness. So we exited the facility, put our gear on as soon as possible and came up to the surface. From there, we had exactly 10 minutes to take our gear off and get into the tiny recompression chamber on the boat. I was stuffed all the way in with five other people — it was hot and claustrophobic. They turned on the oxygen supply to pressurise the chamber so that it was like being underwater again and the nitrogen in your body won’t turn into nitrogen bubbles. We stayed there for almost an hour and when we got back to land, they put us in a bigger recompression chamber.” All his trips, he adds, are self-funded.
Bader also co-founded Ignition in 2020, which was launched as ‘Kuwait's first space research and exploration company’. He says they’ve been invited to schools for talks, and have organised events. “Now we want to establish an analogue mission in Kuwait which will catch NASA’s interest.” And as for his long-standing dream to be Kuwait’s first astronaut, he says being the first is just a number. “I will turn 30 this year and the average age for an astronaut who is just starting out is 32 to 35, so I have some time. But even if I miss my chance, I am happy to know that I have paved the path for the next generation of future astronauts in my country, by spreading awareness about space.”
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