Dubai: UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi secured his position in history books once again by performing the first spacewalk for the Arab world in the vacuum of space outside the International Space Station (ISS) ahead of schedule on Friday.
The Emirati astronaut, who is on the longest Arab space mission, literally made a giant leap for taking ‘Zayed’s Ambition’ and the UAE’s flag into outer space when he egressed out of the Quest Airlock of the station almost 30 minutes after the spacewalk officially began at 5.11pm.
The ‘Sultan of Space’ proudly wore the UAE flag on the shoulder of his bulky protective space suit or Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) that weighs 145kg on Earth. He also wore the UAE’s seven lines national logo with the caption “Impossible Is Possible” on the cuff of his suit.
He, along with NASA astronaut Stephen Bowen performed the first spacewalk or Extravehicular Activity (EVA) of Expedition 69, the fourth for the ISS this year.
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The achievement of the former network engineer with the UAE Armed Forces made the country 10th in the world to conduct a spacewalk outside the ISS.
The much-anticipated event was live-streamed by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre (MBRSC), the agency behind the UAE Astronaut Programme in Dubai, from 4.30pm UAE time.
A couple of hours prior to the spacewalk, Al Neyadi tweeted: “Counting down the hours until we pass through the ISS airlock into space. Wearing the spacesuit and proudly bearing the UAE flag on my arm, I will soon be undertaking the Arab world’s first spacewalk. Wish us luck!”
The NASA live stream, which was also aired by MBRSC, first showed him and Bowen all suited up inside the Equipment Lock of the Quest Airlock of the ISS. Later, they moved to the ‘Crew Lock,’ which provides the actual exit for performing spacewalks where their suits were depressurised before egressing.
“I would like to thank my leadership, the leadership of the UAE and the USA, specifically in Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre and NASA for believing in us and for giving us this opportunity. This might be the first in the Arab world. But it definitely won't be the last. Arab astronauts are now training now to undergo on a mission to the ISS, to the lunar surface and to Mars. I would like to thank everybody who helped us for this moment.”
He also conveyed a message of thanks and love in Arabic to Al Mansouri.
McClain also congratulated both the astronauts on completion of their historic EVA.
“Sultan, you've now entered an exclusive club of humans who have stepped out into the void of space. And in doing so, you've marked a milestone for the United Arab Emirates. This is a historic moment for the expanding face of global cooperation. Congratulations to you both,” she added.
Bowen added: “It has been a great honour to participate in Sultan’s very first spacewalk.”
How the EVA took place
The historic EVA was planned for six-and-a-half hours. It was wrapped up a few minutes later with one unfinished work following a glitch.
The duo’s major tasks included routing cables for future upgradation of the solar power system of the space station and retrieving a Radio Frequency Group (RFG) antenna unit used for the space station’s communication with Earth.
They also had to rearrange foot restraints spread out on different parts of the station’s exterior for their own use and to facilitate the use by future spacewalkers.
They completed the first main task of routing cables for the future augmentation of the station’s power channels with new ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays (iROSAs) flawlessly.
They also installed and secured some multilayer insulation on the solar arrays.
The duo also rearranged APFR or Articulating Portable Foot Restraint (foothold) ahead of schedule.
However, they faced a major challenge with the removal of the RFG unit.
While other tasks were successfully carried out sooner, they could not achieve their goal to retrieve the S-band RFG antenna equipment and bring it inside the space station for refurbishment on Earth in the future.
As part of the task, Al Neyadi removed a multi-thermal insulation tent over the equipment.
Bowen was carried to the RFG unit by the station’s Canadarm-2 robotic arm. He used a drill to unscrew the bolts to remove the RFG hardware from the station. While he managed to remove eight bolts, the centre jacking bolt sheared off and the RFG unit could not be removed from its stanchion.
While the Mission Control Center (MCC) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston tried to help them troubleshoot the bolt, Al Neyadi had to go back to fetch an EVA hammer to fix the bolt.
Since that also did not work, the astronauts were instructed to refix the bolts.
NASA confirmed that the RFG antenna unit was never meant to be retrieved during an EVA considering the peculiar shape of the structure and instructed the duo to abandon the plan.
Following this, they proceeded with the cleanup procedures. Al Neyadi also covered the S-band antenna hardware that the teams were working to remove, with a multilayer insulation to keep it protected.
After retrieving their crew lock bags, they ingressed back into the Quest Airlock and closed the hatches.
While it was the eighth spacewalk for veteran Bowen, rookie Al Neyadi performed equally well, often receiving appreciation from NASA’s Cap Com (Capsule Communication) astronaut Anne McClain.
While giving instructions to the two astronauts from the Mission Control Centre, McClain kept appreciating the jobs well done by Al Neyadi. At one point in time, she also said he had a surgeon’s hands.
Using a pair of scissors to cut a clam shell on the RFG antenna by Al Neyadi was also said to be a rare exercise on an EVA. However, he later had to recreate the strap that he had cut earlier following the abandonment of the plan to retrieve the RFG unit.
Wonders of outer space
The live visuals offered magnificent views of the wonders of outer space as the two astronauts kept translating across the station’s surface by pushing against the handles on the outside of the station.
Light and darkness flashed by with the rapid alternation of day and night as they orbited the Earth every hour and a half.
When the first sunrise took place during their mission, Al Neyadi enjoyed the view and said it was beautiful.
Viewers and the astronauts also witnessed marvellous views of the Earth and Moon.
The microgravity laboratory orbited the Earth around 420km above the planet at about 17,500 miles/28,000 kilometres per hour.
NASA flight engineers Woody Hoburg and Frank Rubio assisted the astronauts in and out of their spacesuits and monitored their spacewalk.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s first astronaut and Al Neyadi’s backup on this mission, Hazzaa Al Mansouri, who is also the Increment Lead for Expedition 69, monitored the mission from the Johnson Space Centre.
The ground station team and top officials of the MBRSC also monitored the historic space event from the Mission Control of MBRSC.