UAE leads its pursuit of a strong astronaut core
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UAE leads its pursuit of a strong astronaut core

UAE leads its pursuit of a strong astronaut core

As the UAE prepares to select its next two astronauts, it is creating a culture of scientific pursuits, guiding its vision to build a knowledge-based economy

The UAE’s national dress – the kandura – received astronomical attention last year.

Quite literally.

When the Emirati astronaut Hazzaa AlMansoori wore one on his first space expedition to the International Space Station (ISS) – a journey that commenced on September 25 and lasted eight days – he took the traditional robe to galactic heights.

“[The thought was] to share our culture with the whole world,” says AlMansoori.

Hazzaa AlMansoori and Sultan AlNeyadi were the first astronauts selected in the UAE’s debut Astronaut Programme announced in 2017. Now national heroes, they are involved in the process of selecting the next two astronauts – slated to be announced in January 2021.

“Top things I’d see [in an aspiring astronaut] are humility, passion and determination,” AlMansoori opines.

On his own return to space, he feels that the second time around he’ll adapt better.

“The amazing thing is that the human body memorises the experience, so the adaptation will be faster, and I think I will enjoy it more.”

However, the next space expedition seems a few years away.

“It will be between three to five years after [the selection of the new astronauts]. It could be sooner, it could be later, but this is something that we are currently working on,” says Salem Al Marri, assistant director-general for scientific and technical affairs at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and head of the UAE Astronaut Programme.

Building on the success of the UAE’s first space mission, the second edition of the UAE Astronaut Programme – registrations for which began in December 2019 – welcomed more than 3,000 applications, officials confirmed in March.

Professionals working in the engineering field made up 31 per cent of the applicant pool, while 17 per cent of them were pilots. Meanwhile, 33 per cent of the aspirants were females, sparking hope that the next astronaut could well be a woman.

With the search for the UAE’s next astronauts now underway, the country’s space programme has done more than just improve the country’s footing in space exploration; it has revved up national pride and helped space education gain momentum, prompting educational institutions nationwide to introduce content on space history and related sciences.

“I think it’s [space education] going in a good direction, especially after the first mission of the UAE going to the International Space Station. Now, we see a lot of focus on this field; they are trying to highlight this field, talking about the history of the space race, where it started and where it’s going,” AlMansoori opines.

Two additional astronauts are expected to join AlMansoori and AlNeyadi early next year, to help form a bigger, more resilient astronaut team, leading UAE’s space endeavours well into the next decade.

“I believe the team, and any possible additions to it in the next 10 years, will be trained to be able to conduct important missions that are in line with what’s happening today. What I would hope is that the team is prepared for any type of mission that comes up in the next decade,” notes Al Marri.

However, the UAE hasn’t limited its reach to the ISS alone; rather it has set sights on further goals.

In 2017, UAE leaders launched the Dhs500m Mars Science City project to provide a viable and realistic model to simulate living on the surface of Mars. This project is part of the Mars 2117 strategy to establish a human colony on the red planet.

In Q1 2020, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre called on UAE nationals between the ages of 28 and 55 to register for the eight-month long UAE Analog Mission#1 to develop capabilities and technologies that will be instrumental for the future explorations of Mars.

“Our intention behind Mars Science City is of simulating the process of humans going and living there [in Mars]. How that affects them is what we intend to find out,” says Al Marri.

Besides space exploration, the UAE is also exploring new frontiers such as space tourism. In Q1 2019, the UAE Space Agency partnered with Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC) to co-operate across a range of areas such as bringing Virgin Galactic spaceflights to the UAE for education and technology research purposes, as well as potential space tourism flights going forward.

“Space tourism has come a long way. I think 2020 and 2021 are big years for it. It’s not the same as professional astronauts going into space that have been trained to conduct scientific missions, but it will get people closer towards maybe achieving their dreams of seeing earth from space,” adds Al Marri.

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