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Emirati astronauts Hazza Al Mansouri (left) and Sultan Al Neyadi being tested for their heart and breathing rates at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia. Image Credit: Mohammad bin Rashid Space Centre

Moscow: The first Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri and reserve astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi are in their best shape and are physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared for the September 25 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), their doctor said.

■Dr Hanan Al Suwaidi

A little over three weeks before his spaceflight, Hazza’s medical doctor said he is at the peak of health and has been doing well since the start of his training. The same goes for Sultan, Dr Hanan Al Suwaidi, the Emirati flight surgeon assigned to the mission, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview in Moscow.

“We can assure our viewers that our astronauts are in their best shape and we are very happy and grateful for their upcoming mission,” said Dr Al Suwaidi, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Science.

“A very important point that we need to mention here is choosing the astronaut and having a very optimal physical and mental stability is very important in order to reduce or minimise any effect of space on the body,” she added.

Astronauts experience a massive strain on the body as they launch to and live in space, as well as on their return to Earth. At lift-off, escaping the Earth’s gravity itself is like being “kicked in the back” with an indescribable force, as one former astronaut puts it.

What the body goes through in space

Monitoring these effects on Hazza is Dr Al Suwaidi’s primary duty for the whole mission. Aside from ensuring that Hazza is mission ready during the two-week quarantine time, she will also follow-up with Hazza during his stay aboard the ISS and upon his landing back to Earth.

“The body goes through different changes during the launch phase. The cardiovascular system is the major system that gets affected. We usually monitor the heart rate and the breathing pattern during this critical time,” Dr Al Suwaidi explained.

“Sometimes, the vision can be affected also. This takes less than 10 minutes and the body will go into the weightlessness phase and there are other symptoms that can occur during that phase. Usually during the launch and re-entry, they will face the increase of gravity effect on the body and that is quite similar during the two phases.”

To give you an idea, escaping gravity would feel like having two of your adult friends pound on your chest non-stop for a period, former US astronaut Tom Jones earlier said in one of his interviews in 2016.

Space motion sickness

The intensive and complex training astronauts go through help them overcome all the “side effects” of space. This includes space motion sickness or what Nasa prefers to call as space adaptation syndrome (SAS).

“One of the most common symptoms astronauts feel during their time on the International Space Station is feeling space sickness. And this is variable between one astronaut to another. Some would feel simple symptoms like feeling less appetite, others can have a bit of nausea or vomiting, depending on the different body’s responses,” Dr Al Suwaidi said.

SAS can incapacitate some astronauts. But medications, a full rest, head movement exercises, and other measures can be done to overcome it.

“They have certain medications on board with them that can help them to reduce symptoms if it occurs. Usually, they are also trained and there are more experienced astronauts on board that can support them if anything [medical emergency] happens,” she said.

Other challenges

Aside from space motion sickness, astronauts face a host of other risks in space such as radiation, isolation, harsh environments and others.

Prolonged stay in space could also affect bone density and muscle mass, leaving some astronauts with a temporary struggle to walk once they return to Earth. Astronauts have to learn how to walk again and adjust to life with gravity.

But this is not expected to happen to Hazza, Dr Al Suwaidi said.

“There’s a difference between a short and a long spaceflight’s effects on the body. Our astronaut will go through a short spaceflight [of eight days]. Usually the body adaptation in this case will be different from astronauts who spend more time in space for six months or one year,” she explained.

“There are different issues or challenges that the body is facing. Usually the muscle mass, the bone density might be affected. There are counter measures that the astronauts would follow during their time in space to make sure that they have optimal health during their time back to earth.”

One of these countermeasures is a mandatory two-hour daily exercise inside the floating lab.