One big happy family: Sultan Al Neyadi with NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 and the 11-member crew on board the ISS. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 returned to Earth after a five-month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) where they spent over a week with the UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, who is on the longest Arab space mission as part of the Crew-6 mission.

Before Crew-5 came down to Earth, Al Neyadi shared a wonderful time with the foursome and the 11-member crew on board the space station also made memories by clicking historic photos.

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai tweeted a group photo of the 11 temporary residents of the ISS comprising astronauts and cosmonauts of the US, Russia, Japan and the UAE. The photo tweeted just hours before four members of Crew-5 returned to Earth showed all 11 of them huddling inside the microgravity laboratory with a thumbs up sign.

Expedition 68 insignia

According to NASA, the photo was taken on March 6. Al Neyadi was seated in the centre in the bottom row and all 11 crew members sported black T-shirts with the Expedition-68’s mission insignia for the historic picture.

The Expedition 68 insignia features seven sparkling stars in the vastness of space, representing crew members and experts on the ground. Bright sunbeams illuminate the ISS, a platform for scientific research, Earth and astronomical observation, education, as well as development of new technologies necessary for the exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, on the Moon and Mars.

With the SpaceX “Endurance” capsule carrying Koichi Wakata of Japan, Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina, and NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada splashing down safely near Tampa off the coast of Florida, US, early on Sunday morning, the remaining crew members aboard the space station will form the Expedition 69.

Expedition 69

NASA said it was a relaxed Friday aboard ISS as crew swap activities began winding down ahead of the return to Earth of four crew members on Saturday. It said the quartet of Crew-6 including Al Neyadi, Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg from NASA, and Andrey Fedyaev of ROSCOSMOS, completed their first week of station orientation and familiarisation tasks. All but Fedyaev had the day off as they had to get up early and support their departing four crewmates when they enter the Crew Dragon Endurance and undock from the station.

Flight Engineer Frank Rubio of the US, Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, station commander and flight engineer respectively, are the remaining members of Expedition 68 who will continue to work with Crew-6 on Expedition 69.

Great team work

Al Neyadi had a great time working with the ISS family of 11. “I can’t be happier than this…I mean, seeing all friends in space, gathering as a big family…This is the essence of space exploration,” he had said in his first speech after floating into the orbital laboratory. He had also ensured the presence of Suhail, the mascot of MBRSC, in his first ever group photo on board the ISS.

During his first interaction with school kids in Dubai’s Jumeirah College on March 7, Al Neyadi had once again spoken about the friendly environment aboard the ISS “with a very nice crew.”

“So in that regard, I don’t really feel scared in space,” he said in response to a student’s question about what is the scariest thing that has happened to him in space. He had also pointed out that astronauts are “well-prepared to deal with any sort of emergency, so we don’t feel scared.”

The first Najmonaut (Arab astronaut) on the longest Arab space mission seems to have made a special bond with his Japanese colleague, astronaut Koichi Wakata of JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) of Crew-5.

UAE, with love from space

Wakata was seen in Al Neyadi’s first ever video of the Earth from the Cupola of the ISS on March 9. As he floated towards the Cupola, he encountered Wakata taking pictures from the Cupola.

After exchanging greetings, Al Neyadi told Wakata, “I am gonna share this moment with everybody!”

That very night, Wakata tweeted two images showing the stunning night views of the UAE from the space station.

“Nice view of the bright city lights of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates when we flew over earlier today!”

Celebrating their friendship, Wakata added in the post “It is a great pleasure to work with @Astro_Alneyadi onboard the ISS!”

Al Ain received a special mention as it is the hometown of Al Neyadi.

In his comments to that tweet, Dave MacLean, GIS Faculty at Centre of Geographic Sciences (COGS) of Canada, who maintains an ArcGIS online platform that shows a chart of ISS pictures, said: “ Nice images :) Tweet pinned near #AlAin (upper-left of left image), with a blue-AW pin on map, with a hint for @M3MG3’s note about “the Alneyadi home” (shukran / thanks).”

Upside down on ISS

On Friday evening, MBRSC tweeted another image of Al Neyadi and Wakata inside the Quest Airlock of the ISS.

The Quest Airlock is a pressurised space station module consisting of two compartments attached end-to-end by a connecting bulkhead and hatch. The two compartments are ‘Equipment Lock,’ which provides the systems for suit maintenance and refurbishment, and the ‘Crew Lock.’ The Crew lock provides the actual exit for performing spacewalks. The airlock is the primary path for spacewalk entry and departure for astronauts wearing US spacesuits. Quest can also support the Russian Orlan spacesuit for spacewalks, according to NASA.

So far, only 259 spacewalks have been conducted on the ISS since December 1998. Of these, 194 were conducted in US spacesuits and 65 in Russian spacesuits.

If Al Neyadi gets a chance to do it, he will be the first Arab astronaut (Najmonaut) to achieve the feat.

In the special photo from Quest, Al Neyadi can be seen in an upside-down position while Wakata sits straight facing the camera, smiling. According to NASA, the portrait was taken on March 4.

Retweeting that picture, Salem Humaid Al Marri, the director general of MBRSC, said: “@JAXA_en is one of our main partners at MBRSC. Together, we have built a strong partnership and today we expand our collaboration to space aboard the International Space Station.”