Mohammad Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi.
Mohammad Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi. Image Credit: X@MBRSpaceCentre

Dubai: The second batch of UAE astronauts, including the first Emirati woman astronaut, on Tuesday became NASA graduates eligible to fly to the International Space Station (ISS), to the Moon and Mars.

Mechanical engineer Nora Al Matrooshi and her colleague Mohammad Al Mulla, who was a Dubai Police helicopter pilot, and 10 American astronaut candidates graduated as part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa)’s 23rd Astronaut Class.

The duo became the first Arabs to graduate from a NASA class, setting a historic milestone for the country. They received their silver astronaut pin at the NASA’s 2024 Astronaut Graduation ceremony honouring the next generation of Artemis astronaut candidates livestreamed from the agency’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston late on Tuesday.

It marked their graduation from basic training and their eligibility to be selected to fly in space. They have completed training in spacewalking, robotics, space station systems, T-38 jet proficiency, and Russian language.

After completing more than two years of basic training, the candidates of the 2021 class earned their wings. They have thus become eligible for spaceflight, including assignments to the ISS, future commercial destinations, missions to the Moon under the Artemis Programme, and eventually to Mars, said Vanessa Wyche, director, NASA Johnson Space Centre who introduced the 12 newest astronauts.

The group 23 of astronaut candidates, affectionately known as "The Flies,” received thunderous applause from the audience including a team from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai. Salem Humaid Al Marri, director general of MBRSC, along with the UAE’s first two astronauts Hazzaa Al Mansoori and Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, who is also the Minister of State for Youth Affairs, were present to witness the historic graduation of the second batch of Emirati astronauts.

The ceremony witnessed the presence and speeches of several NASA veterans. Al Marri was also present with the NASA officials while doing the honours.

Will they go to Moon?

As part of NASA’s Artemis campaign, the agency said it will establish the foundation for long-term scientific exploration at the Moon, land the first woman, first person of colour, and its first international partner astronaut on the lunar surface, and prepare for human expeditions to Mars for the benefit of all.

The members of this NASA class are expected to fly to the moon's surface and to NASA's lunar-orbiting Gateway space station, for which the UAE is constructing an airlock, to support the Artemis programme that aims to land astronauts at the moon's south pole no earlier than 2026.

‘The Flies’ will also be among the first astronauts to do moon missions since the Apollo astronauts of the 1960s and 1970s, more than half a century ago.

During the graduation ceremony, Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator, said: “You may wear a spacesuit and fly to the Lunar Gateway for which the UAE is providing an airlock.”

In a fun video of The Flies played during the ceremony, the two UAE astronauts could be seen raising their hands and joining the bandwagon of their classmates when they were asked who wanted to go to the Moon.

However, the MBRSC is yet to announce if it would choose one of the two new astronauts for its upcoming Moon mission. Al Marri had earlier said that all four astronauts of the UAE would be trained and a nomination would be announced closer to the mission.

What they would take to space

Asked to name one snack they would pack with them for their first space flight, Al Mulla said: “For me, it will be definitely MandM,” referring to the candies. “We shared a lot of memories about that one pack on the survival. So, your memory.”

Al Matrooshi said she would take salt and vinegar chips.

In another video, she spoke about the NASA training. “It's intense. It's dynamic, and it's very rewarding.”

The most fun part of astronaut training for her was learning how to fly a jet. “Going that fast in a vehicle was exhilarating,” she said.

The fun part of the training for Al Mulla “was being in the wilderness.”

“It's so amazing, it's a new experience for me,” he said.

What their classmates said about them

Their classmates spoke highly of the Emirati astronauts as they were introduced on the stage.

NASA astronaut Luke Delaney, a retired major with US Marine Corps, said about Al Matrooshi: “Everybody knows astronaut training is a pretty dynamic environment, demanding but that's where having a teammate like Nora is huge. Whether you're riding out a hailstorm on top of a mountain in Wyoming or flying a T38 jet, you can always count on Nora. She's compassionate. She's fearless. She's always pushing boundaries and elevating the team. Nora, it's been a blast training with you and I look forward to our next adventure off planet,”

NASA astronaut Marcos Gabriel Berríos, a major in the US Air Force, said about Al Mulla: “He is selfless and funny. He is generous with his time. He's the first person to put everyone else before himself and he does so with such an amazing sense of humour, which is a constant joy throughout our entire training process. Mohammad, we've laughed together, we've cried together we've done difficult things together. Extremely fortunate to have had you as an office mate, as one of my main training partners and most importantly as a friend, and it would be an absolute honourr and privilege to fly to space with you.

Prior to joining the NASA class, the two astronauts were given in-house training by MBRSC which included swimming, scuba diving, survival exercise, stamina improvement, aircraft flying classes and Russian language training.

What will they do next

Al Marri earlier said that he was very happy about the two Emiratis graduating for the first time from a NASA class.

“It has historically had Canadian or American or Japanese, or European astronauts, but it's the first time we get somebody from the UAE, making it the fifth or sixth country to actually graduate from NASA. Very happy with that. They've done a great job. They've achieved all the objectives.”

After the new batch graduates, he said the MBRSC would have a rotation system for the four Emirati astronauts in Houston and the UAE where they will work in mission control and carry out outreach activities.

"Once they graduate, they will go into a rotation system, where most probably we will have two of our astronauts based in Houston for a while and then they rotate back to Dubai and vice versa," he said.

"When you are not mission-assigned, your jobs are something like Capcom (mission control officer who communicates with astronauts on space mission), working with different partners and on something like the Gateway which our astronauts will be an integral part of.”

Once they are selected for a mission, he said they would go for another round of training for a year or a year and a half.

“So, that's what their jobs will be for the foreseeable future."

Know their bios
Noora Al Matrooshi

Nora Al Matrooshi was born in 1993 in Sharjah. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the United Arab Emirates University in 2015 and also received training from the Vaasa University of Applied Sciences in Finland.

Nora is a member of The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, with five years of practical experience in her field. Her career accomplishments include managing engineering projects for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). She was also the vice-president of the Youth Council for three consecutive years at the National Petroleum Construction Company.

Outstanding in engineering and mathematics, Nora placed first in the UAE for the 2011 International Mathematical Olympiad. She was also selected for the 2013 UAE Youth Ambassadors Programme in South Korea.

Her hobbies include reading, writing, drawing and horseback riding, in addition to stargazing. Aside from space exploits, Nora is also an advocate of sports. She was involved in organising the Special Olympics IX Mena Games 2018 held in Abu Dhabi and also volunteered for the Special Olympics World Games 2019. She has overseen the implementation of several projects aimed at empowering the youth and represented the UAE at the UN International Youth Conference in the summer 2018 and winter 2019 editions. She is also a member of The Emirates Foundation’s Takatof since 2011, and was part of the team that represented the UAE at Expo Milano 2015. She has also volunteered for the F1 event in Abu Dhabi in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Nora’s passion for space began at a young age. She enjoyed going to stargazing events and lessons about space were her favourite at school. Her motto is ‘Do what makes you happy.’ She also believes “impossible is possible and that one can always succeed through determination and persistence.”

Mohammad Al Mulla

Mohammad Al Mulla was born in Dubai in 1988. At the age of 19, he obtained a commercial pilot’s licence from the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and became the youngest pilot at Dubai Police.
Al Mulla is also decorated officer. He received the Bravery Medal from Sheikh Mohammed and the Commander in Chief Award for the Best Officer in a Specialised Field, in addition to the Dubai Police Global Excellence Award.

His passion for space exploration got a boost after meeting Emirati astronauts Hazzaa Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi at an air show in 2019. After several conversations and discussions with them, Mohammad realised that he was eligible to join the astronaut programme and immediately applied for the second batch.
His dream came true.