Second batch astronaut
Emirati astronauts, Mohammad Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi, during their first public appearance at a press conference held by Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai on Wednesday. Image Credit: Ahmad Ramazan/Gulf News

Dubai: The second batch of Emirati astronauts, Mohammad Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi, made their first public appearance during a press conference held by Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) at The Address Dubai Mall on Wednesday.

According to the MBRSC, the astronauts are currently undergoing in-house training, which includes swimming, scuba diving, survival exercise, stamina improvement, aircraft flying classes and Russian language training.

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The astronauts will then move to Houston in December this year to begin preparing for the “2021 Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Astronaut Candidate Class”, as part of a joint strategic agreement between the UAE and the US to train them at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre.

Saeed Karmostaji, manager of Astronauts Office at MBRSC, said Al Mulla and Al Matrooshi will be trained to manage various missions on the International Space Station (ISS), including simulated spacewalks and long duration stay, along with training in major systems, robotics, extravehicular activity, T-38 jet courses, water and land survival, Russian language skills and theoretical training.

Stringent selection

It was no mean feat for Al Matrooshi, 27, and Al Mulla, 33, to be selected for the second batch of the UAE Astronaut Programme. Aspiring Emirati astronauts have undergone comprehensive and stringent screening process.

There were 4,305 applicants who applied for the position. The list was initially cut to 2,099 applicants based on their age, educational background, and scientific research experience. The applicants then underwent IQ, personality and technical assessments before making a list of 1,000 candidates.

122 top applicants

Following the evaluation of 1,000 candidates, MBRSC selected the top 122 applicants, who were then interviewed virtually. The shortlisted 122 candidates were further evaluated, bringing down the shortlist to 61 applicants. After thorough medical examinations, the 61 shortlisted candidates were pared down to 30, who moved to the interview phase. A total of 14 candidates — nine men and five women — qualified for the final phase. Pioneer Emirati astronauts Hazzaa AlMansoori and Sultan AlNeyadi, along with Nasa astronauts Anne McClain and Jessica Meir conducted the final interviews.

‘Raise the name of the UAE higher’

Then on April 10, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, tweeted: “Today we announce the first Arab female astronaut, among two new astronauts, selected from over 4,000 candidates to be trained with Nasa for future space exploration missions. Congratulations Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammed Al Mulla. We congratulate them and count on them to raise the name of the UAE ever higher in space.”

Huge responsibility

Like their senior counterparts, Al Mulla and Al Matrooshi are fully aware of the responsibilities on their shoulders as they train for future space explorations. “A huge responsibility comes with becoming an Emirati astronaut,” Al Mulla told Gulf News during a one-on-one interview after the media briefing.

He added: “The selection process was very tough and standards were high — we spent more than one year doing exams, interviews and medical tests. There were several stages before they chose the final candidates and I think they (selection committee) chose me because of my military and aviation background.”

Accomplished aviator
Mohammad Al Mulla was born in Dubai in 1988. At the age of 19, he obtained a commercial pilot’s licence from the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and became the youngest pilot at Dubai Police.
Mohammad is also decorated officer. He received the Bravery Medal from Sheikh Mohammed and the Commander in Chief Award for the Best Officer in a Specialised Field, in addition to the Dubai Police Global Excellence Award.
His passion for space exploration got a boost after meeting Emirati astronauts Hazzaa Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi at an air show in 2019. After several conversations and discussions with them, Mohammad realised that he was eligible to join the astronaut programme and immediately applied for the second batch.
His dream came true. Early this year, he tweeted a photo of him wearing a light brown-coloured pilot uniform with Hazzaa and Sultan in blue astro suit. He captioned it: “In 2019, I met astronauts Hazzaa Al Mansoori & Sultan Al Neyadi for the first time during the Dubai Airshow. It was an unforgettable moment that fostered my passion for space exploration. Soon, we will meet in the blue astronauts’ suit.”

Diversity also has a big role in forming the corps of UAE astronauts. “Hazzaa is a fighter pilot; Sultan is a scientist; Nora is an Engineer and I’m a helicopter pilot,” added Al Mulla, who became the youngest helicopter pilot at Dubai Police at the age of 19.

“Our different backgrounds form a formidable team. Nora and I work closely with the first batch of astronauts — we hold virtual conferences and they (Hazzaa and Sultan) follow up on the progress of our trainings. They also give us valuable tips and advice,” he added.

Al Mulla continued: “We want to make sure we represent our country as best as possible and we are immensely proud to represent our country in the global pursuit of space exploration and I look forward to being part of the next mission to space.”

From arts and crafts to moon exploration

Meanwhile, Al Matrooshi has already made history when she was announced as the first Arab woman astronaut. She said it was a dream that began when she was only five years old.

Speaking to Gulf News, she said: “We had this arts and crafts teacher who told us to make suits for space exploration. There were stars made of paper and our classroom was transformed to simulate the environment on the moon. It stirred my imagination — I was five years old back then — and I told myself one day I would like to go to the moon.”

First Arab woman astronaut
Nora Al Matrooshi was born in 1993. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the United Arab Emirates University in 2015 and also received training from the Vaasa University of Applied Sciences in Finland.
Nora is a member of The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, with five years of practical experience in her field. Her career accomplishments include managing engineering projects for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). She was also the vice-president of the Youth Council for three consecutive years at the National Petroleum Construction Company.
Outstanding in engineering and mathematics, Nora placed first in the UAE for the 2011 International Mathematical Olympiad. She was also selected for the 2013 UAE Youth Ambassadors Programme in South Korea.
Her hobbies include reading, writing, drawing and horseback riding, in addition to stargazing. Aside from space exploits, Nora is also an advocate of sports. She was involved in organising the Special Olympics IX Mena Games 2018 held in Abu Dhabi and also volunteered for the Special Olympics World Games 2019. She has overseen the implementation of several projects aimed at empowering the youth and represented the UAE at the UN International Youth Conference in the summer 2018 and winter 2019 editions. She is also a member of The Emirates Foundation’s Takatof since 2011, and was part of the team that represented the UAE at Expo Milano 2015. She has also volunteered for the F1 event in Abu Dhabi in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Nora’s passion for space began at a young age. She enjoyed going to stargazing events and lessons about space were her favourite at school. Her motto is ‘Do what makes you happy.’ She also believes “impossible is possible and that one can always succeed through determination and persistence.”

She continued: “A part of my dream came true as I was chosen to be part of the UAE Astronaut Programme. My life has changed and the sense of responsibility has become even bigger. I know a lot of people — especially young girls — look up at me and my message to them is: ‘If I can do it — you can do it as well, if no one has done it before, you then just go ahead and be the first. Always set your goals and ambitions higher because as they say when you are shooting for the moon, even if you don’t reach the moon, you will land among the stars. Work hard and follow your ambition’.”

Al Matrooshi also has an advice to aspiring astronauts to strike a balance between work and social life. “After work and gruelling training, I find time to hang out with family and friends, she noted, before adding: “I’m eagerly looking forward to joining the 2021 Nasa Astronaut Candidate Class, where I will meet pioneers from all over the world and work together to explore new horizons for the good of humanity.”

UAE’s commitment to space exploration

MBRSC director general Yousuf Hamad Al Shaibani noted: “The new batch of the UAE Astronaut Programme translates to our continued commitment to human space flight and space exploration. Our efforts are also part of the mission to constantly improve the UAE’s position in the space industry, and deliver an experienced batch of Emirati scientists, engineers and experts.”

“Mohammad and Nora will be responsible for continuing the UAE’s legacy in the space industry by discovering what is beyond our knowledge of space and science. Rest assured, they will receive all the support and encouragement from our country’s wise leadership and from the team at MBRSC as well as from the people of the UAE,” he added.

Salem Al Marri, MBRSC deputy director general and head of the UAE Astronaut Programme, added: “The second batch of the UAE Astronaut Programme will contribute to global space exploration by training and preparing for future manned missions, promote a culture of scientific research and encourage exploration and innovation among the youth of the UAE and Arab world.”

Future collaborations

Currently UAE astronauts are training at Nasa and preparing for ISS missions. When Gulf News asked if MBRCSC will have future collaborations with other countries, specifically with China after it launched its own space station named Tiangong (Heavenly Palace), Karmostaji answered: “MBRSC is open to collaboration with other countries and space agencies.”

In a press statement, Al Shaibani noted: “We will also soon be revealing more of our future missions, extending beyond the Centre’s training processes and previous accomplishments, paving the way for UAE to compete at the highest level on the international stage.”