Dubai: The trip to space was like a very quick rollercoaster ride and the joy of weightlessness is something that he wishes everyone could try, UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi told students of a Dubai school in a live audio call on Tuesday.
More than 1,000 wide-eyed students at GEMS Jumeirah College in Dubai were treated to the ultimate space lessons when the Emirati astronaut currently on the longest Arab space mission connected with the school via live radio transmission from the International Space Station (ISS).
Al Neyadi took the time to answer students’ questions, speaking on a variety of topics, ranging from what inspired him to pursue a career as an astronaut and how he prepared for his current mission, to what it felt like to enter space and what work he will be carrying out during his time on the Space Station.
Asked about how his preparations compared to the actual experience of entering space, Al Neyadi said: “We train in mock-ups that simulate the inside of the capsule [spacecraft]. And we also get training to experience G-load as well. But being in space is totally different; there’s a continuous feeling of weightlessness. I wish everyone could try this, but unfortunately as far as I know, the closest you can get to a rocket launch is going on a really fast rollercoaster!”
Answering a question about the launch, he said it was a rollercoaster experience which was wonderful. “The launch was actually wonderful. I really liked it. I enjoyed it. It felt like a roller-coaster ride but it was really quick.”
Wonder of weightlessness
“When we crossed the eight minutes, it is the time for the engine cut off and that is the time when you feel the weightlessness. It is the best part of the exploration,” he said.
He went on to say that he finds floating in space is his best entertainment in space though they have the facility to watch TV shows and movies on the ISS.
Al Neyadi could not stop talking about the wonder of things floating in space. “I think the most surprising thing [about the space station] is … everything is floating. [Back on Earth], we take things for granted. If you put an object on a table, for example, it stays there. But, in space, everything floats away. So you really need to keep organising yourself, using some Velcro tape so your stuff won’t float away.”
He told the students that the “thirst for exploration” is what inspired him to be an astronaut and “it is probably one of the most important things that you should be thinking of to be an astronaut.”
Though he misses his family, particularly his kids, he said he can make calls and send emails on a regular basis. Astronauts can also make ham radio calls to Earth, like the ones through which they spoke.
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Talking about how it feels to be inside a spacesuit, he said: “The first time I wore the suit, it was really amazing. I think it was the fulfilment of my childhood dream, and every time I put on that suit, it means that I’m ready to do something important. So it’s always a great honour to don a suit, either for exercise or actually for a flight.
He found the question on waste management on the ISS as a very important one.
“We do have a way to utilise things differently in space. For example, on the ISS, we regenerate the oxygen that we breathe. We recycle the water that we utilise,” he said, pointing out that the ISS has the ability to ensure the small environment within it is sustainable.
Speaking about the science experiments, Al Neyadi said ISS is a great and big floating laboratory around where a lot of science is going on. He also spoke about his vital signs and measurements, sleep pattern and diet being studied to know the impact of microgravity.
Is it cold, is it noisy?
Do you feel cold on the ISS? To this question, Al Neyadi said the station is actually temperature-controlled and there are some colder modules on the ISS for specific purposes. “But overall, we feel comfortable inside the ISS.”
The station has science experiments running 24 hours a day, systems and the computers that are running all the time. “But outside, you don’t hear anything because it’s a vacuum,” said Al Neyadi.
Scariest thing in space?
What is the scariest thing that has happened to you in space? To this question, Al Neyadi said astronauts are “well-prepared to deal with any sort of emergency, so we don’t feel scared.”
On board the station, he said they have a very friendly environment with a very nice crew working with him. “So in that regard, I don’t really feel scared in space.”
About working outside the station, he said he was hopeful to get back with a decision on an EVA (extra vehicular activity).
On sleeping in space, he said: “Actually I do feel really comfortable [to sleep in space]. What’s funny actually, is you just need to close your eyes. In space, you don’t need a pillow. Just get into your sleep bag and just close your eyes.”
Al Neyadi said he had carried some of his favourite Emirati food with him. “But this morning I ate some scrambled eggs and drank coffee. We do have a variety of foods here.”
Curious, excited students
Questions from around 20 students were chosen from around 200. Yusra Khan, a Year 7 student at Jumeirah College, said: “I have always been interested in space, and it was exciting to know that if I sent in a question, it would be read out and answered in space. So, I submitted a few questions and one of mine got chosen. I asked Sultan Al Neyadi about some of the scariest things that have happened to him so far. This was a curiosity of mine, as I don’t know what happens in space!”
The students among the audience were also equally excited. “It was really interesting. It was inspirational and useful, especially for students who do want to go into that career field. It was also entertaining to all of us,” said year 9 student Kavya Shyamsundar.
How it happened
The historic opportunity to interact with the UAE space hero came about when Christopher Greenfield, a science teacher at the school, contacted Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS), an organisation that specialises in connecting school students with astronauts on board the Space Station.
Greenfield, who began his career teaching at NASA’s International Space School in Houston, Texas and who has already been involved in seven previous ARISS events over the past 20 years, said: “Our students are fascinated with space exploration and having the opportunity to speak with astronauts inspires them to ask truly thought-provoking questions. I applied to ARISS in March 2022, knowing that this would be an amazing event that would add a unique dimension to our students’ regular studies.”
The call was arranged in coordination with ham operators and ARISS and Nasa coordinators located in Italy, Australia and the US as part of the Science Week activities.
Robert Kesterton, Acting Principal, Jumeirah College, said: “As a proud UAE school, we are so fortunate to be able to provide our students with an opportunity to speak with UAE trailblazer Sultan Al Neyadi. I am sure his inspiration will serve to fuel the aspirations of Jumeirah College students, and we are honoured that he agreed to take questions from our students while on such a historic mission.”