Emirati astronauts Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan Al Neyadi
Emirati astronauts Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan Al Neyadi in a forest in Russia during winter survival training. The pair have completed the first half of their training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. Image Credit: MBRSC

Dubai: Simulating the launch to space, surviving a water crash-landing, handling in-flight emergencies and re-entering the earth, in addition to a series of experiments on themselves — this is just part of the rigorous training two Emirati astronauts will go through over the next seven months.

The duo are Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan Al Neyadi — and one of them will eventually join a three-man crew travelling to the International Space Station (ISS) for an eight-day mission on September 25.

The crew will lift off in a spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Preparing for return to earth

Meanwhile, Hazza and Sultan have completed the first half of their training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (YGCTC). But what lies ahead will prove to be tougher physically and mentally.

“It’s a complex training [programme]. There will be a lot of simulation inside the Soyuz spacecraft, like the launch to space and handling some emergencies just in case they happen,” Hazza, 35, a military pilot, told Gulf News in an interview.

Hazza and Sultan will be inside the TDK-7ST3 and TDK-7ST4 simulators designed to train crews for piloting the Soyuz aircraft at all flight stages.

In command of the spacecraft is a Russian commander, but all three crew are required to know the flight sequences to ensure the success of the mission.

The simulators are almost exact replicas of the spacecraft they will use, built using full-size mock-ups of habitable compartments, according to the YGCTC.

The simulations include pre-launch preparation, orbital ascent, orbital manoeuvring, rendezvous, final approach and docking to the ISS.

Preparations for the trip back to Earth after eight days include simulations of undocking from the ISS, de-orbiting, landing and final operations.

“The water survival is probably one of the big milestones. It’s a step like the winter survival training,” said Sultan, 37, an engineer who has also served in the military, pointing to how it entailed a simulation in case the capsule lands in water. “We’ll be trained to survive in that situation.”

First Arabs at ISS

Both Hazza and Sultan will meet with scientific teams from UAE universities and outside the country, to prepare for experiments with the Russians, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Their main research focus is on the effect of microgravity on the human body since astronauts undergo changes in their heart, blood vessels, brain, eyes, and ears and down to their cells during space flight.

“We’ll be the first Arabs from the Middle East going to the ISS. Our genes are a bit different so they want to check that and how our body will behave in space,” Hazza said.

The primary candidate will be a volunteer test subject in space for eight days on the effects of other space hazards like radiation.

“We’ll be carrying special equipment to measure this radiation. We’ll take blood and eye tests and some other procedures.”

The duo said support from UAE leaders and their own families gave them the extra push.

“My wife has supported me from the beginning. She makes sure that the kids are taken care of and comfortable so I can focus more on my mission,” Hazza said.

Sultan said: “Our wives are playing a great role in this. They have endured a lot. They’re taking care of the kids while we are away. So we have all respect for them.”

Asked if there’s anything they’re scared of considering the mid-flight accident of the Soyuz spacecraft in October, Hazza said: “Scared? No, we are prepared.”

“We’re more scared of the media rather than the mission,” Sultan added in jest.

“All we want from them [public] is to pray for us. We want them to feel proud about this programme. We won’t let them down. We will go there and we will raise the (UAE) flag Inshallah,” Sultan said.

A day in the life of Hazza and Sultan at ISS

What their day is like during training: Training takes place weekdays from 9am to 6pm. The duo wake up early to pray and start their day at around 7.30am. They sleep at 10.30pm. If they have exams, they study after dinner at the Astronaut cafeteria.

How they pray on the ISS: Their prayer timings will not be based on the timings on Earth but on a computer since the ISS orbits the earth 16 times, giving them 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets. They will pray facing the Earth.

What do they do apart from training: On weekends, they get to take days off. Star City is more like a village so when they’re free, they go to Moscow and spend weekends there.

What their children say about the mission: Both Hazza and Sultan’s families have been to Star City. Their children are excited and ask a lot of questions.

As Sultan said: “Our kids ask a lot of questions — what is it like there? When are you going to space? Can we hide in your bags and go with you to space? I told my daughter and my kids that the Soyuz is very very tight.”

What about their weight? Hazza has lost 4kg while Sultan’s weight remains unchanged though he has gained more muscle mass.