Emirati astronauts Dr Sultan Al Neyadi and Hazzaa Al Mansoori standing for photograph in front of Emirates's special flight that flew across the UAE on Tuesday to celebrate the country’s space achievements Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Dubai’s Emirates Airline on Tuesday flew a special flight across the UAE to celebrate the country’s space achievements and honour its space hero, Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, following his return after the longest Arab space mission onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Emirates chartered the one-off flight EK2641 in collaboration with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).

Joining Dr Al Neyadi onboard were the UAE’s first astronaut Hazzaa Al Mansoori, who was also the first Arab Increment Lead for Expedition 69 as well as the NASA astronauts and Russian Cosmonauts who were part of Expedition 69 aboard the ISS along with Dr Al Neyadi. The crew included American astronauts Stephen Bowen, Warren Hoburg, and Francisco Rubio, as well as Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopev, Dmitry Petelin, and Andrey Fedyaev. Emirates paid tributes to the space heroes through special announcements on the Public Announcement system.

Gulf News was among the select media on the flight which carried Salem Humaid Al Marri, Director General of MBRSC, and Emirates’ Chief Operating Officer, Adel Al Redha along with close to 200 employees from MBRSC for the celebration.

The Emirates A380 was emblazoned with a specially designed astronaut decal, celebrating the UAE’s vision to build its capabilities in space exploration and aerospace innovation on the global stage. The space-themed livery carried the name of MBRSC along with an image of an astronaut. The flight also had a space-themed menu featuring desserts and condiments shaped like planets.

Commanded by Captain Abdalla Abdelrahman Al Hammadi and First Officer Alex Van Der Veer, EK2641 took off from Dubai International Airport at 12noon. The two-hour flight flew over all the emirates and made a special fly-past over Al Ain, the hometown of Dr Al Neyadi. The captain made special mentions about the prominent locations and landmarks as the flight flew above them.

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Astronauts Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, Hazza Al Mansouri, Salem Humaid Al Marri Director-General of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and officials on board a one-off special Emirates A380 flight to celebrate the UAE’s journey into space and the return of Dr Sultan Al Neyadi. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Space flights to be regular

Dr Al Neyadi said he was excited to be on the plane with his bigger family of the MBRSC team and Expedition crew members as well as the media persons who covered his historic mission.

He said it felt amazing to be back with his family and touring the country for the outreach programme to inspire students in universities and schools, answering their questions about space missions.

“We will continue training and continue pushing our limits in space exploration,” he said about his future plan. He said the NASA SpaceX Crew-6 crew members are scheduled to go back to Houston for an awarding ceremony in January.

Dr Al Neyadi hoped that space flights would become more regular and like flying on normal aircraft in the near future and there would be more youngsters joining the space sector.

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New livery at a one off special Emirates A380 flight to celebrate the UAE’s journey into space and the return of Dr Sultan Al Neyadi. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Space and climate change

He also shared his happiness about the special flight happening just ahead of the country’s 52nd Union Day and the UN Climate Action Conference COP28 in Dubai.

“It is a great opportunity for everybody to be in the UAE and speak about ways to protect our planet…I think going to space gives us a vantage point, a different overview about why we need to protect the planet as a whole, as nations that take care of the next generations,” he said about COP28.

Al Mansoori said he was more than happy to be on the special flight with Al Neyadi and his Expedition 69 friends.

“Our space programme is sustainable. Our leadership is supporting our programme. Our plan is to launch [space missions] every four to five years,” he pointed out. He said his most cherishing memories from the ISS were looking down and seeing Earth.

“What we saw from around 500km above Earth was really mesmerizing in terms of looking at it from there, knowing that everyone that we love and everyone that we worked with is down here and we have to really appreciate that make sure that we keep safe the planet Earth not just for us, or the next generation but for all the following generations,” he said. The astronauts walked around the flight greeting the special passengers and taking photos and selfies with them.


Lifetime opportunity

Before take-off, Dr Al Neyadi and Al Mansoori visited Emirates Headquarters and were welcomed by Emirates’ President Sir Tim Clark and Al Redha. Emirates employees then had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a Q&A followed by a meet and greet with the two admired astronauts.

Speaking on the occasion, Al Marri, said: “We are grateful to Emirates for this exceptional gesture, honouring the astronauts and the team at MBRSC. Today’s event symbolised our shared vision and commitment to pioneering and recognizing the contributions of the aerospace sector. As we look to the future, MBRSC remains dedicated to driving the UAE and the region towards new frontiers in space exploration and innovation. With our leadership’s futuristic vision, we are ready to uncover new discoveries, achieve milestones, and further enhance our nation’s global presence in the field of space.”

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Successful mission

Meanwhile, Al Redha, added: “We are honoured to celebrate the successful mission and return of Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, as well as the ground-breaking work of MBRSC to propel the UAE’s flourishing space sector. Whether it’s soaring through the skies or rocketing into the atmosphere, Emirates pilots and MBRSC astronauts share a passion for discovery and are a source of innovation and inspiration for all. As MBRSC pioneers the final frontier, Emirates’ vast network of over 140 destinations across six continents enable earth-bound travellers to explore almost every corner of the world. Together, we will continue to support the UAE’s vision to unveil new knowledge and discover new horizons, both on and off planet.”

Emirates Mars Mission

Established in 2006, MBRSC is an advanced scientific and technological hub, responsible for making the UAE a world leader in space services and exploration. In addition to the world-class UAE Astronaut Programme, MBRSC is an incubator of innovation, developing some of the world’s most high-accuracy, high-resolution imaging satellites to produce data and analysis for the global scientific and research communities. MBRSC also launched several exploration initiatives, including the successful Emirates Mars Mission in 2021 which has been collecting essential data on the red planet’s atmosphere for over one Martian year – equivalent to approximately two Earth years.

With the clear synergies between aviation and aerospace, Emirates is also contributing to the country’s ecosystem. The Emirates Flight Training Academy, with its cutting-edge technologies, is one of the most advanced pilot training programmes in the world, preparing the next generation of aviators to push boundaries as they take to the skies. With 289 cadets currently enrolled, 222 of whom are Emirati, and a further 120 who graduated and are now flying for Emirates, the airline is committed to developing the country’s pipeline of talented and experienced pilots.