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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Battling nausea and learning Russian: it's off to space camp for the UAE's first astronauts

Zero gravity and fending off wolves are all part of what it takes to go to space
Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov takes part in an underwater training session in a pool at the Yuri Gagarin training centre outside Moscow in January 2014. AFP

And then there were two. More than 4,000 Emiratis applied to join the UAE’s pioneering astronaut training programme when the list was closed earlier this year.

Even after overcoming such odds, Sultan Saif Al Neyadi and Hazza Al Mansouri will know that only one of them will eventually take a place on a Russian rocket to become the first Emirati in space.

There is good reason this is known as the world’s most elite club.

Fewer than 560 people have been in space, compared with the 4,000 and more who have reached the summit of Everest, the highest point on our planet.

To go further – beyond Earth’s gravity – requires something special, what the writer Tom Wolfe, in describing the first American astronauts, called “the right stuff”.

That means the ideal combination of physical and mental strength to survive in body and mind the rigours of space travel.

For Al Neyadi, a doctor of information technology, and Al Mansoori, a military pilot, what comes next will be something completely new.

Sultan Saif Al Neyadi, a doctor of information technology, left, and Hazza Al Mansouri, a military pilot, are the first Emirati astronauts. 

They have seven months to prepare for Soyuz MS-12, the official name for the flight that will carry one of them on a 10-day mission to the International Space Station. That training begins now.

Perhaps the first thing astronaut trainees Al Neyadi and Al Ali Mansoori will need to do is buy a hat and warm coat.

Russia’s equivalent to Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre is the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, named after the first man in space and located in Star City, a suburb of Moscow, where the average January temperature is minus 9°C.

Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui takes part in a training session at the Gagarin training centre. AFP

The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, built as a launch centre under the Soviet Union, can reach a frigid minus 16°C – about the same as a household freezer.

Not that the UAE’s first astronauts will have time to explore the sights.

Their training will be intense and rigorous, starting with a crash course in Russian so they can communicate with ground control and fellow crew members, including Oleg Skripochka, commander of Soyuz MS-12 and a veteran of two long trips to the ISS and three spacewalks.

In addition to daily visits to the gym to maintain peak fitness, the UAE pair will spend time in a human centrifuge, a huge spinning arm that rotates a speed to simulate the G-force of lift-off – three times that of gravity on Earth.

They will need to become accustomed to the bulky flight suit, worn during the journey in a Soyuz capsule, which can take anything from six hours to two days depending on the complexity of the final docking approach.

More training sessions will help them become accustomed to zero gravity. One way of doing this is underwater in a swimming pool, which simulates weightlessness.

Another is a specially designed aircraft which flies in step parabolic arc that allows passengers to float in the interior for a few seconds.

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The aircraft’s unofficial name – “vomit comet” – is an indication of what can happen to those on board. Nausea is common in space travel, at least in the first days of Earth orbit.

More training is need to familiarise new astronauts with the layout of the International Space Station, where everything will be unfamiliar, from sleeping to bathroom breaks.

With the sun rising and setting 16 times a day on the space station, there is no such thing as night and day, but astronauts still get their eight hours a day, tucked in a sleeping bag in their personal cubby space.

Then there is learning to use the lavatory, with a vacuum chamber and funnels.

The ISS also features a urine recycling system, which allows 75 per cent to be reclaimed as drinking water. Performing the urine transfer from toilet to recycling unit is not regarded as one of the plum jobs on the space station.

US astronaut Barry Wilmore adjusts his gas mask as he takes part in a preflight training session at the Gagarin cosmonaut centre. AFP

Despite spending a relatively short 10 days on the first mission, the UAE’s first astronaut will not be sitting idly watching the world go by.

The station is primarily a scientific research centre, for long-term space exploration and conducting experiments that make the most of the unique environment of weightlessness in space.

It is likely that the Soyuz capsule will contain experiments conceived back in the UAE for them to perform. They might follow up on the DNA research begun by Ali Al Mansoori, the Dubai schoolgirl who won the Genes in Space competition last year.

An American astronaut, Doug Wheelock, called ­re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in a space capsule as “like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but the barrel is on fire”.

There is one further test for which our UAE trainee astronauts must be prepared. Unlike the US, which splashes down at sea, Russia touches down on land.

Returning space capsules can sometimes go off course, so in an emergency Soyuz astronauts are trained to survive for as long as necessary before recovery teams can reach them.

Waiting in the vast interior of Siberia, the UAE’s first astronaut might find that lighting a fire with twigs and keeping wolves at bay are also part of what it takes to have “the right stuff.”