Dubai: “Everything felt heavy.” This was the first reaction from UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi about his return to Earth after the longest Arab space mission aboard the International Space Station(ISS).
Al Neyadi and his NASA SpaceX Crew-6 colleagues, NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg, were speaking about their mission for the first time following their return to Earth during a press conference aired by NASA TV on Tuesday night. Crew-6 returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft Endeavour splashing down at 8.17am GST on September 4, off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, and flew back to Houston shortly afterward.
The Emirati astronaut described the initial experiences and feelings following his re-entry into our planet's atmosphere.
“Well, it felt really, really heavy,” he said.
Al Neyadi recollected that he was the last one to egress the Dragon capsule. “And I did not notice that I was off strap until the recovery team started to pull me. And I thought wow, it was only my way just pressurising me towards the seat. So yeah, we felt really heavy. Everything feels really heavy."
Having spent 186 days in microgravity, Al Neyadi admitted that the weighty sensation even prompted him to forego drinking the water, as he preferred to minimise any unnecessary movements
He said: “I remember Steve handing me a bottle of water. It felt really heavy like a ton. I just did not drink it because I didn't want to move a lot…”
However, he was amazed at how rapidly the human body can adapt to the sudden shift from microgravity to Earth's gravitational pull.
"It's amazing how quickly you can get better," he remarked, revealing that the process of recovery unfolds by the hour.
Currently undergoing rehabilitation in Houston, Al Neyadi explained that astronauts gradually regain mobility, starting with the movement of their arms and then gradually incorporating leg movements. The swift adaptation to Earth's conditions, he noted, mirrors the ability of space travellers to acclimate to the weightlessness of space.
“It's not easy. You might have some difficulty walking . You might have motion sickness.”
Ready for space again
Despite all the challenges, he said he wished to go to space again and, given a chance, travel with the same crewmates.
He explained that his mission is a continuation of the UAE’s Astronaut Programme, starting with his colleague Hazzaa Al Mansoori who flew to the ISS in 2019.
“This is the second mission. We have astronauts under training that will finish next year. So it's a continuation of human space flights. And I'm happy actually to be part of it.”
Emphasising the UAE’s commitment to go further into space, he said the country had signed the Artemis Accords to the Moon. “Hopefully we'll get to be part of it in the future,” he said.
A big thank you
He took the opportunity to thank everybody on the recovery team, the flight surgeons, and everybody in the rehabilitation facilities “who make us get back to normal as quickly as possible.”
In a message to everybody in the region and specifically in the UAE, he said: “I just wanted to say thank you…Everybody, thanks for the help and support. You might see four astronauts going into space, but honestly, this is not possible without the support of family, the support of friends, and the ground teams. We're not talking about hundreds… we're talking about thousands of people working tirelessly to make this possible throughout the six months.”
He remembered with gratitude those who worked tirelessly round-the-clock to facilitate all the science experiments, daily activities, technology demonstrations, and maintenance works that the astronauts did aboard the ISS.
“It's a great thing and coming from a region where missions to space were stopped for a long duration, I'm feeling humbled by this experience. So I would like to say thank you to all,” he said.
He also remembered to thank his Crew-6 fellow crew member and Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev who was unable to participate in the news conference due to travel.
Not records, but impact matters
He has scripted new chapters in the UAE’s history by becoming the first Arab to conduct the longest space mission in the region and the first Arab to conduct a spacewalk, also known as Extravehicular Activity (EVA), in the vacuum of outer space outside the ISS.
However, Al Neyadi said he values the impact that his mission created in the region rather than the number of personal records that he set.
“It is really nice to see the youngsters and the community overall just talking about space…So to me, that is more important. It's not about the person or the number of days. This can easily be broken.”
He said he wished to share his experiences with the people in the region and answer questions about life in space in simple language. “I wanted to do that even before my arrival [to Earth]. So, I was engaging with a lot of people, just answering their questions and speaking the Arabic language and trying to explain everything in a very simple and scientific way…That is the most important part of my mission.”
Fun and favourite food
The first among the crew members to float into the ISS on March 3, Al Neyadi once again recollected the initial days, explaining how incredible it felt to experience the weightlessness in the microgravity environment of the space station.
“It was really, really cool, just trying all aspects of physics and trying to just use minimal force to go from one place to another. We had some competitions…trying to float without touching any cables or hitting any walls or anything. So it was really fun.”
Though they were extremely busy with their work, astronauts shared that they also had fun aboard the ISS, playing chess with the ground station members back on Earth and doing things of individual interests.
Though the astronauts get to eat a variety of food and he also shared some Emirati food with his colleagues, Al Neyadi revealed that his favourite food on the ISS was a mango salad. “I would say a specific food that I really liked right until the end of the mission…was a mango salad. It was my favourite throughout the mission.”
Recalling some special moments in space, Al Neyadi said he was lucky to have got some downtime during his spacewalk to do maintenance outside the ISS on April 28.
He recollected NASA’s Cap Com (Capsule Communication) astronaut Anne McClain, who was giving instructions for the EVA, telling him to take five minutes to take some pictures.
“It was really great… just to have that moment and look
down to Earth and seeing just nothing. What is protecting you from dying is a thin glass [the visor] and you are just seeing everything [from outer space] crystal clear.”
He was also humbled to see the excitement of scientists while he was doing several experiments onboard the ISS.
“It’s really amazing and you feel how important the
mission is…why do we go to space and why do we explore…because it’s a unique environment to give us an insight into heart tissues, for example, or any biofabrication or the effectiveness of a medication. It is really amazing and humbling to be part of such efforts.”
The astronauts said their mission would not be complete until the last sample [from the experiments they conducted] was collected. “And we’ve got another month or so for that to come,” said Bowen, who, along with Hoburg, also shared their out-of-the-world experiences during the mission.