Race for UAE astronaut hunt enters final phase

Two shortlisted Emiratis will undergo tough training in Russia before historic April 2019 space trip to ISS

Dubai: The UAE’s first four Emirati astronaut corps will be selected in the coming weeks, with two of them to undergo training in Russia, a top official said on Monday.


In an interview with Gulf News, Salem Al Marri, assistant director-general for scientific and technical affairs at Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), said one of the two to undergo training in Russia will be a “primary” astronaut; the other will be a “backup”.

The astronauts will undergo training in cooperation with Russian space agency Roscosmos in Star City, said Al Marri, who heads the MBRSC’s UAE Astronaut Programme.

Last month, the UAE announced it will send the first Emirati astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2019 on a 10-day mission, as part of an agreement with Roscosmos. It will be the first time an Emirati blasts off into space, also becoming the first Arab to visit ISS.

They [the four] will be trained from when they are selected until that flight [to ISS in April 2019]. We will have a primary and a backup for that flight, and the other ones will be trained for longer durations, for different types of missions. After the first two come back from the mission, we will also send them for training for longer missions.”

 – Salem Al Merri | Assistant director-general for scientific and technical affairs at MBRSC

Last week, MBRSC said 39 Emiratis had passed the physical and psychological tests to qualify for the preliminary list of the UAE Astronaut Programme, which had received more than 4,000 applications.

On Monday, Al Marri told Gulf News selecting the final four will be “quite difficult” as the candidates are “very close” in their prospects to become the first Emirati astronauts. He described some of them as “the elites in their fields”.

One in five (20 per cent) of the last 39 applicants are women; all of them are university graduates; many are engineers; some are civilian and military pilots; doctors; teachers; and parents, Al Marri said. Their age range is 25 to 42.

“So there’s a wide variety of backgrounds … Some of them are, I would say, elites in their fields. We have a good combination of people — selecting the top four will be quite difficult to do.”

4,022 Emiratis applied for the UAE Astronaut Programme

He added that an interview panel will “down-select” that number (39 applicants) for a second interview panel, which will chose the final four corps. On the interview panels are MBRSC officials as well as astronauts, psychologists and other experts from international space agencies, Al Marri said.

“They [the four] will be trained from when they are selected until that flight [to ISS in April 2019]. We will have a primary and a backup for that flight, and the other ones will be trained for longer durations, for different types of missions. After the first two come back from the mission, we will also send them for training for longer-term missions,” Al Marri said.

The training will not be easy, he added, with the corps being subjected to heavy g-forces [gravitational forces], simulating spacewalks underwater; and other demanding tasks. They will also have to be strong mentally, capable of working under pressure — all the while maintaining a pleasant personality to work alongside fellow ISS passengers.

“You want well-rounded individuals; people who have strong leadership skills, who play well in a team, make decisions in a calm manner — so there is a wide variety of skills they need … He or she has to be a good ambassador for the UAE.”

The UAE representation on ISS will be involved in conducting experiments in micro gravity, which will be linked to some of “our [MBRSC] scientific objectives, but also, what is key, is that they will be able to conduct experiments for schoolchildren, for university students, so they can really showcase the importance of science and technology. So there are a lot of outreach aspects linked to what we’re doing”.

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