UAE astronauts Mohammad Al Mulla (L) and Nora Al Matrooshi
UAE astronauts Mohammad Al Mulla (L) and Nora Al Matrooshi Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Following their historic graduation from Nasa’s Artemis Generation Class on Tuesday, the UAE’s two newest astronauts said they are ready for a Moon mission, but are eager to reunite with their families for now.

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Mechanical engineer Nora Al Matrooshi and her colleague Mohammad Al Mulla, formerly a Dubai Police helicopter pilot, along with 10 American astronaut candidates, completed the 2021 Nasa Astronaut Candidate Class training programme in a ceremony held at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, US.

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During the graduation ceremony Image Credit: Supplied

The duo are the first Arabs to graduate from a Nasa class. They received a silver astronaut pin affirming their status as fully qualified astronauts prepared for future space missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the Moon, and eventually Mars.

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Speaking to Gulf News in a virtual interview, Al Matrooshi and Al Mulla expressed their determination to raise the UAE flag even higher during future space missions.

Ready to serve the nation

Both astronauts emphasised their preparedness for any mission, whether it involves the Lunar Gateway orbiting the Moon, where the UAE is contributing an airlock and will send an astronaut, or the Artemis mission led by the US, which aims to return humans to the Moon and venture deeper into space. With Nasa’s initiative to send the first woman to the Moon and the UAE’s involvement in the Gateway mission, they underscored the nation’s dedication to challenging perceived impossibilities.

Al Mulla expressed his commitment to contributing to the UAE’s goals, stating, “My role is to be part of the journey to meet my country’s objectives. So I don’t mind going to the Gateway, landing on the Moon and even going further to Mars.”

Al Matrooshi echoed Al Mulla’s sentiments, but added a personal aspiration. “I will go on any mission that I am sent on,” she said. “But if you ask me what my dream mission would be… It would be the dream that I had as a five or six-year-old, of setting foot on the Moon.”

Both astronauts offered guidance to aspiring astronauts, encouraging them to seize opportunities, pursue their passions, and continually strive for self-improvement.

Missing family

Both astronauts expressed happiness over the friendships formed during the training period and said they cherished the camaraderie among classmates and mentors.

Despite this, they eagerly anticipated reuniting with their families though they managed to spend some time with them during short breaks.

“My family is extremely proud and happy that I’ve finally completed the basic training,” Al Matrooshi said. “It’s amazing to have them here and share the experience of the graduation. It’s also nice to have them meet my classmates.”

For Al Mulla, the hardest part was being unable to witness his younger son growing from one to three years.

“I spent the last two years in Houston, which was heartbreaking. But it is what we do as astronauts. We should be ready for long duration missions away from family and friends. I’m happy to see them now,” he said.

Praise from classmates

During the graduation ceremony, their classmates spoke highly of the Emirati astronauts.

Al Matrooshi’s unwavering support and fearlessness and her role in elevating the team during challenging situations were highlighted while

Al Mulla was commended for his selflessness, humour, generosity and camaraderie.

Thrills of training

The most thrilling experience during their training for Al Matrooshi was the first time she flew a T38 jet. “We went supersonic, that’s like, above the speed of sound. It was amazing to see how fast a human-made machine can go and being in control of it.”

Al Mulla said the most challenging, yet rewarding, part of the training was spacewalk training in a spacesuit.

He said stepping out of his comfort zone and facing challenges alongside his colleagues has been an invaluable experience.

The graduation ceremony was attended by Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, astronaut and Minister of State for Youth Affairs; Salem Humaid Al Marri, Director-General of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), and astronaut Hazzaa Al Mansoori.

What happens next?

MBRSC is yet to announce if it would choose one of the two new astronauts for its upcoming Moon mission. Al Marri had earlier said that all four UAE astronauts would be trained and a choice made closer to the mission.

The new astronauts will now join MBRSC’s rotation system for four Emirati astronauts in Houston and the UAE where they will work in mission control and carry out outreach activities.

“The comprehensive training undertaken by our cadre of astronauts exemplifies the strategic and multidimensional approach the UAE is taking towards space exploration. Nora and Mohammad’s journey from rigorous preparatory training to completing the Nasa programme demonstrates their readiness to take part in future missions, significantly contributing to our understanding of space. This achievement is a stepping stone towards our goal of sustainable space exploration, showcasing the UAE as a pioneering force in space science and technology,” Al Marri stated.

Fun facts

Al Mulla recalled how the entire team shared one pack of m&m peanut butter candies, his favourite, during their survival training at Alabama’s Fort Novosel. In memory of that experience, he plans to take a pack of m&m to space. Al Matrooshi plans to carry salt and vinegar chips.

In a fun video of the Nasa batch known as ‘The Flies’, played during the ceremony, the two UAE astronauts are seen raising their hands along wth their classmates when they were asked who wanted to go to the Moon.