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President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, with Al Neyadi (centre front) Image Credit: WAM

Abu Dhabi: UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi has set his eyes on the Moon next, he revealed during the grand welcome accorded to him by his proud country on his triumphant homecoming after the longest Arab space mission on Monday.

The UAE opened a new airport terminal in Abu Dhabi to welcome the space hero who was received by the leaders of the country. Abu Dhabi International Terminal A, which is expected to be inaugurated later this year, had a special arrival. The ‘Sultan of Space’ was flown in from Houston to the new swanky terminal in an official plane sent by the UAE government.

Hailing from Al Ain, Al Neyadi was flown home on an official plane bearing the name of his homeland. His “Al Ain” plane's flight lasted for 17 hours, around the same time that his NASA SpaceX Crew-6 took to splash down to Earth from the International Space Station on September 4.

In honour of his return, the UAE’s Al Fursan aerobatic team performed a flypast over the airport after his flight landed.

Al Neyadi was accompanied by top officials of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), the agency behind the UAE Astronaut Programme, and the first Emirati astronaut Hazzaa Al Mansoori, who was Al Neyadi’s reserve in the longest Arab space mission and the first Arab Increment for the Expedition 69 onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

He had an emotional reunion with his father and three of his six children before he was received by the leaders of the nation. He was seen giving tight hugs to his children before he proudly walked ahead with them and his father Saif Al Neyadi.

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UAE Astronaut, Sultan Al Neyadi (C), greets his father Saif Al Neyadi (R) and his children during a homecoming reception at the new Abu Dhabi international airport. Image Credit: UAE Presidential Court

Leaders hail Sultan

President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, then welcomed Al Neyadi.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid spent time in conversation with Al Neyadi – accompanied by his father and three of his children – and discussed aspects of the mission and his experience during his time in space.

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They congratulated him on completing the longest-ever space flight by an Arab astronaut and becoming the first Arab to perform a spacewalk. Their Highnesses hailed Sultan as an inspiration to young people across the UAE and the world and remarked that his pioneering achievement reflected the boundless ambitions of the nation.

The President hailed the return of Al Neyadi as a moment of national pride for the UAE. He noted that the people of the UAE are united in pride for the remarkable achievement, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid described Sultan’s mission as not only a notable milestone in the UAE’s scientific advancements but also a reflection of the nation’s priority of investing in its people, which began under the Founding Fathers and continues today.

The UAE astronaut thanked Their Highnesses for their ongoing support for the UAE’s space programme, and then presented the President with a UAE flag that had accompanied him throughout his 186-day mission to space.

“It is the flag that I hung on the Cupola. It has the smell of the space. This is the one I gave to the President. It has visited space and returned,” Al Neyadi later said about the flag he gifted to the President.

Al Neyadi was seated between the two leaders during his meeting with them. In a heartwarming gesture, the leaders were seen escorting him out of the VIP lounge where they held the meeting.

The leaders then addressed team members from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, accompanied by Al Neyadi and other members of the UAE Astronaut Programme.

They thanked all those responsible for the success of this most recent mission and commended the teams involved in previous missions – including Hazza Al Mansoori’s trip to the ISS, the Emirates Lunar Mission, and the Mars Mission ‘Hope Probe’ – and those working on the forthcoming Mission to the Asteroid Belt and the Mars 2117 programme.

The President referenced the late Sheikh Zayed, who instilled in his people the determination to not let obstacles stand in the way of progress. He highlighted that the UAE has made great strides in the field of space exploration, and gave thanks for the vision of Sheikh Mohammed for advancing the UAE’s capabilities in this area.

He also stressed the importance of investing today in the future progress of the UAE and the world, and developing the nation’s knowledge economy and the skills of its young people in the fields of science and technology.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid noted that the UAE Astronaut Programme reinforces the country’s vision based on investing in its people, empowering them, supporting their potential, and enhancing their expertise and capabilities, all of which form the basis of previous and future progress.

He stated that, with God’s grace, the UAE aims to develop more young men and women as astronauts to enable further scientific research and exploration, both in space and on Earth. He remarked that the leadership remains committed to investing in the people of the UAE and empowering its sons and daughters with faith and trust.

To mark the homecoming, a grand reception ceremony was held at the new Abu Dhabi Airport Terminal A. The ceremony was attended by school children dressed in astronaut flight suits, government employees, and members of the public. Al Neyadi was greeted by a performance of the traditional Al Ayyala dance and the audience waving UAE flags and applauding, demonstrating the depth of pride and celebration felt by the people of the nation.

Al Neyadi then attended a press conference along with Salem Al Marri, director-general of MBRSC, and Hazzaa Al Mansoori.

Eyes set on the Moon

During the press conference, it became clear that the Sultan of Space has set his eyes on the Moon next.

Asked about his personal preference to go to the Moon, he said: “I see myself as an astronaut ready to go into any mission. Personally, I would love to go to the Moon and go to Mars if possible. I don’t think it will happen sooner regarding Mars.”

He highlighted that the UAE has signed the Artemis Accords for the safe and peaceful exploration to the Moon. “This is the biggest step. We all know about the gateway,” he said referring to the Lunar Gateway, Nasa’s planned space station that will orbit the Moon.

The UAE is reportedly exploring ways of helping design the Gateway, including providing an airlock module on the station.

“It’s a proposed station that will orbit the Moon, so I would love to be part of it.”

However, he pointed out that it depends on the opportunity and suitability for the mission.

“As you know, space has a lot of effects. We don’t know what could happen. [Astronaut’s bodies receive a lot of radiation. We’re still in the process of identifying what sort of impact the six months in space has had on my body,” he pointed out.

He said he felt almost 90 per cent back to normal after the two-week rehabilitation programme and thanked Dr Hanan Al Suwaidi, the flight surgeon at MBRSC, for helping him readjust to gravity and life back on Earth.

'I want to sleep'

Back on the home planet, his immediate priority was, however, to catch a good night’s sleep. “The first thing that I am going to do is sleep,” Al Neyadi said.

He added that he wanted to have some downtime and relax. “I would love to go out just to nature. I wanna go out to the mosque. I love to pray, see everybody, greet everybody and answer some questions.”

Al Neaydi went on to say that he was happy to see his children would have some quality time with them and explain his mission to them. “I took some small toys for them. I brought Suhail [toy mascot of MBRSC which accompanied him to the ISS} and my son was joking. Is it the Suhail you took [to space] and I told no, this is a fake one. I have the real one hidden. He is a VIP," the spacewalker said.

Al Neyadi added that he was honoured to be referred to as the ‘Sultan of Space,’ but he politely said that he believed that the title should go to Hazzaa Al Mansoori as he was the first Emirati to fly into space.

Al Mansoori said he was proud of Al Neyadi whose mission proved to everyone that “if you’re dedicated, you can achieve anything”.

He said the re-entry of Al Neyadi’s spacecraft to Earth was a dangerous episode. “But, we were happy to see his smile after he landed. This mission was not easy. It was six months in space. It is going to be written in history and we’re all very proud of this.”

Al Neyadi further said that with proper preparations and belief in your target everything would become possible. He added that the astronauts are ambassadors in space, citing that he felt proud to represent the Emiratis and Arabs through the space mission while working peacefully with astronauts from various other countries.

He answered several other questions pertaining to his mission and shared the insights he gained from his profound experience. He also highlighted the importance of the experiments he conducted and the need to protect planet Earth and live peacefully.

Al Neyadi pointed out that the UAE hosting the COP-28 proves that the country is committed to protecting the planet.

Salem Al Marri thanked the wise leadership for their support for the nation’s space missions.

“We followed the strategies and vision of our wise leadership. In each stage, we upgraded our knowledge and we are always thinking of future missions," he said.

"We have proved to our world and to our space partners that this will be a sustainable programme. Our astronauts have proved that they are determined. We have chosen two more and they are now training for future missions. This has proved once again that we are really serious in this matter.”