UAE: How Emirati astronauts are training at top NASA facility

Dubai - Hazza Al Mansouri, Sultan Al Neyadi explain their preparations and what it takes to be on a space odyssey for a longer duration

By Nandini Sircar

Published: Tue 13 Apr 2021, 6:01 PM

The second batch of the UAE’s astronaut corps is preparing for a longer history-making odyssey to the International Space Station (ISS).

Hazza Al Mansoori had spent eight days on board the ISS, in 2019 and became the first Emirati and Arab to go to space.

Khaleej Times caught up with Al Mansouri and his colleague Sultan Al Neyadi for an exclusive virtual conversation while they were undergoing training at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, US.

In the second part of the exclusive interview, Al Mansouri recalled that space exploration is no child’s play.

“To travel to space, you need to prepare yourself mentally, physically and emotionally. The blast off and the experience of the spaceflight is indescribable. It evokes a range of emotions. Besides, the physical pressure during the launch is tremendous. In the same breath, I must also say there is a sense of immense gratification. You’re grateful for all the choices you made, the opportunities that you got in your life to reach this point…to be in the rocket blasting off to space,” he said.

While the life of an astronaut can be glamorous, heroic and historic, Al Mansouri held that it could be exceedingly daunting.

“I think one of the most challenging parts is to manage the emotional rollercoaster that one encounters. I spent eight days in space, but in future we’re aiming for a longer duration. We’re humans at the end of the day. After a couple of months aboard the space station one may feel isolated which can be emotionally demanding. So, being mentally ready for it is extremely important,” said Al Mansouri, whose colleague Sultan Al Neyadi is giving him company at the NASA facility in Houston.

He explained how rigorous training sessions could equip astronauts to embrace all challenges.

“There are survival training sessions at NASA to live in an isolated environment for a long time. There are NEEMO training sessions in water for a couple of weeks, followed by the CAVES training schedules. These different types of training sessions strengthen us both physically and mentally to be in space for a longer duration. The UAE is aiming for more skillful missions with longer durations.”

Such mission-specific training sessions teach astronauts to improve their communication skills, problem-solving, teamwork and survival skills before they strap into a rocket and are blasted-off to the ISS.

The experienced astronauts are also looking forward to welcoming the two new chosen candidates, Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammed Al Mulla who are set to start off their arduous training sessions at Houston by the beginning of next year.

Al Neyadi echoed Al Mansouri.

“We’ve performed a big chunk of the training activities. We’ve done a lot of training on the ISS itself... doing all the daily activities from maintenance, responding to critical emergencies and establishing capabilities to run all the experiments. We’re on the verge of finishing an important training session that helps simulate weightlessness in space. It’s a physically demanding activity where we spend approximately six hours in water. However, we’ve progressed well on that front, despite the challenges.

We recently started our T30 training. We’re expected to fly T30 jets, which is new for me but is probably usual for Hazza. So, we have a lot of activities and a hectic schedule. We’re looking forward to finishing our training with flying colours in Houston. We’re expecting the second batch of Emirati astronaut corps will join us here by the beginning of next year,” he added.

How Russian and American space trainings are different

Al Neyadi compared the contrast between the training sessions at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Moscow, Russia, and at the current one at the NASA facility in Houston.

“In Russia, the training that we underwent was basically a preparation for a short mission which was the eight days, when Hazza spent in space. So, we trained on the vehicle that took him to space which is the Russian Soyuz. Then, we trained on the ISS mockup. We had a trip to Germany to work on the Columbus module as well. Our training sessions involved a lot of scientific experiments to spend those eight days in space,” he said.

He added: “But when it comes to the current training… it’s a full training aimed at being able to operate the stations and this will allow us to spend not only eight days, but we can spend a moderate length of time in space, up to six months or a year in space. This is the primary difference between the two training sessions.”

Hazza Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi, seen this KT file photo in Russia.
Hazza Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi, seen this KT file photo in Russia.

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