Countdown to history

The inside story of how the UAE landed its first place in space

The latest Soyuz mission leaves for the International Space Station in June 2018. Reuters

The latest Soyuz mission leaves for the International Space Station in June 2018. Reuters

Just 561 people have been into space. They represent only 37 countries. It is arguably the most elite club in the world, where membership requires huge financial resources, a high level of technology and, above all, courage.

It is a club that will shortly have a new member. His or her identity is still to be revealed, but the country is the United Arab Emirates, number 38 and 562 respectively.

April 2019 is the date set for the Emirati astronaut to “slip the surly bounds of Earth,” as a poet once wrote. They will fly to the International Space Station, a literally visible symbol of global cooperation in our night skies.

The first Emirati in space will fly in a Russian Soyuz capsule, currently the only manned space ship capable of reaching orbit, with the end of Nasa’s shuttle programme.

It is, as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler Dubai, expressed it, an “historic agreement”.

Also one with a certain amount of good fortune and an ability to grasp an opportunity that is a hallmark of the Emirate.

Empty seats on space rockets are rarer than tickets for Hamilton and far more expensive. The US is currently paying around $80 million to Russia for a round trip to the ISS.

Then, almost overnight, something changed. For almost a decade, Russia has been working on a new module for the ISS. The Nauka multi-purpose laboratory was finally due to launch early next year.

In June, word got around that Nauka had been delayed again. The launch would now not take place until November or possibly early 2020.

The delay also freed up spare seats on Russian missions to the ISS, since astronauts would no longer be needed to work on the new module. In particular, it freed up a spare seat in the capsule of MS 12, due to fly in April 19.

Equally important, the crew of Soyuz MS 10, with a launch date of this October, was also cut back to two. For an astronaut, getting into space is only half the task. The crew of MS 10 are due to return to Earth 10 days after the arrival of MS-12, making a short round trip to the ISS possible to the right candidate.

According to the Russian news agency Sputnik, there was widespread interest in the spare seats, which typically cost around $40 million – if not to the American government.

Among those interested were a wealthy American businessman and another Gulf country, according to Sputnik. But it was the UAE that signed the deal, at UN space conference in Vienna on June 20 with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

It brings forward the UAE’s plans to put an astronaut in space by several years, but space exploration has always had an element of the unexpected.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, it captured the attention of the entire world and set off a space race that eventually saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon just eight years later.

In 1961, the seven Emirates were still more than a decade from the creation of the UAE. The country was a place not just of low technology, but no technology. Roads were rare, medical services and education almost absent in many places and illiteracy and infant mortality part of everyday life.

The ambition was there, though, just as it is today with the country’s ambition to become a major player in space. The will be two long journeys beginning at the Baikonur Cosmodrone in ten months’ time.

One is a 400 kilometre flight to the International Space Centre, the other is a triumphant moment in the 46 year journey of the UAE.

Courtesy of Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

Courtesy of Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

Centrifuge used to prepare astronauts for the G forces at lift-off. Getty Images

Centrifuge used to prepare astronauts for the G forces at liftoff Getty Images

An American astronaut trains underwater to simulate zero gravity. Getty Images

An American astronaut trains underwater to simulate zero gravity. Getty Images

In just a few weeks, an elite group of Emiratis will board a plane for Moscow.

Their destination is Star City, a suburb of the Russian capital that is the training centre for astronauts.

Once one of the most secure and secret areas of the old Soviet Union, the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, to give the official name, is the starting point for anyone who wants to fly in a Soyuz rocket.

Since the end of the space shuttle programme in 2011, it is where US astronauts have also prepared for their missions to the International Space Station.

It is also where the first UAE astronauts will train, as one of them prepares to become the first Emirati in space.

With less than ten months to prepare, they will face an intensive programme that will test them intellectually as well as physically.

As well as undergoing arduous training to deal with the colossal forces of lift off, they will also need to learn Russian to communicate with the ground crew and their fellow astronauts.

This initial training will not be the full two years normally required for lengthy missions to the ISS, but even though this first venture into space by an Emirati will only last 10 days, the UAE astronauts will be no passengers.

Russian space officials have stressed that the UAE astronauts will not be “space tourists”, meaning they are paying simply to go on a thrill ride.

“As I understand, it is not about a tourist flight. The Arab side is interested in creating its own cosmonaut team,” Sergey Krikalev, the executive director of Manned Spaceflight Programmes at Roscosmos, told the Russian news agency TASS.

“This is an international platform for formulating technologies. We are ready to include their list of experiments in a number (of experiments) held on board the ISS.” 

The Emirati team, which will almost certainly include back up astronauts who will also undergo training, will need to familiarise themselves with the interior of the cramped Soyuz capsule and the space suits they will wear on their return trip.

As well as a strict fitness regime, they will probably simulate weightlessness perhaps in a tank of water or on a special flight which plunges in a parabolic arc to recreate zero gravity.

Perhaps the most unforgettable experience will be a giant centrifuge that will spin them at high speed to simulate g-forces.

They will also have to learn the art of living in space, from sleeping when there is no up or down and the delicate art of negotiating a space toilet.

Complex scientific equipment will need to managed, as they assist and conduct experiments during their stay.

Survival skills are also taught to cosmonauts in case the landing is off course and they must fend for themselves in sometimes harsh conditions in the wilds of Russia. Becoming an astronaut also means knowing how to light a camp fire.

Noisy, cramped and with a design that dates back to the 1960s, the Soyuz spacecraft remains the most dependable in the world.

The ship that will transport the first UAE astronaut made its debut in 1967 as part of the space programme of the old Soviet Union.

It was a tragic beginning. The capsule’s parachute lines became tangled on the descent, crashing at high speed and killing astronaut Vladimir Komarov.

Tragedy also struck in 1971, when the capsule of Soyuz 11 depressurised before re-entry, causing the deaths of all three crew.

Since 1984, though, Soyuz has consistently provided its safety and reliability, carrying out nearly 100 successful missions.

The spacecraft has also outlasted America’s Nasa, with American currently unable to put astronauts in space since the ending of the shuttle programme.

US astronauts must now buy an expensive round ticket on a Soyuz to visit the International Space Station.

Astronauts from more than a dozen other countries have also made successful trips to the ISS on board a Soyuz.

Originally developed to carry Soviet astronauts to the Moon, the Cold War spacecraft has been through at least ten stages of further developments and improvements.

Externally, though, it is best known for its spherical crew capsule, a contrast to Nasa’s cone-shaped Apollo Nasa. Unlike the Apollo, which splashes down in the ocean, Soyuz land in the vast open spaces of Russia.

In fact, the Soyuz capsule – as opposed to the rocket also called Soyuz which carries it – is made of three sections.

At the top is the orbiting module, used by the crew when in space and which locks the ship to the space station. For launch and re-entry astronauts sit in the small descent module which also houses the controls.

"It's kind of like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel but the barrel is on fire.”

American astronaut Doug Wheelock describes his Soyuz experience

At the bottom is the instrumentation/propulsion module, which contains thrusters and the folding solar panels. Everything but the descent module is jettisoned for the return home.

Two Soyuz are always attached to the ISS for evacuation in an emergency.

Several astronauts have described the experience of being in a Soyuz.

Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, recalled: “Things clunk into place when you push buttons on the control panel. You can hear valves opening and shutting. It is solid, reliable and robust.”

American Doug Wheelock called it: “Incredibly bumpy and hot and cramped. "It's kind of like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel but the barrel is on fire.”

On rentry, Sharman said:” You can see the part of the spaceship outer shell which starts to glow as it heats up as it plunges into the atmosphere and bits start to burn off.

“Then when the parachute opens you get jerked from side to side. It’s a lumpy and bumpy ride.”

But one that gets you home safely.

Russian cosmonauts leave for the latest Soyuz mission to the ISS. AP

Russian cosmonauts leave for the latest Soyuz mission to the ISS AP

Soyuz spacecraft lifts off this month from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Reuters

Soyuz spacecraft lifts off this month from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Reuters

Graphic: Ramon Penas

Graphic: Ramon Penas

Home for six astronauts 400 kilometres above the Earth. Getty Images

Home for six astronauts 400 kilometres above the Earth Getty Images

Visitors to the International Space Station Graphic : Ramon Penas

Visitors to the International Space Station Graphic : Ramon Penas

The East Coast of the United States as seen from the ISS. Getty Images

The East Coast of the United States as seen from the ISS Getty Images

If the time is right and the night is clear, a bright glowing light can be seen moving rapidly across the horizon.

This is the International Space Station, our largest satellite after the Moon and orbiting over 400 kilometres above the Earth.

It has been doing so since 1998, a unique collaboration between nations that have made peace in space where they have not on earth.

The first module for the ISS was launched in November 1998. Zaraya, the first Russian section was joined two weeks later by the American Unity. Today, what appears as a glowing blob from Earth is a complex structure that has been home to up to 13 astronauts, although typically the normal crew is six.

They have come from 18 countries, to become 19 next April with the arrival of the first UAE astronaut.  Their nationalities mostly reflect who pays the bills. The station divided into two sectors, Russian and American but 15 nations determine how it is run.

They include Canada and Japan and the European Space Agency representing a further 11 nations, including France, Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy. The station’s operation life is currently extended to 2024.

The station is controlled by an international treaty, whose article one describes its purpose as: “Long term international co-operative framework on the basis of genuine partnership, for the detailed design, development, operation and utilisation of a permanently inhabited civil Space Station for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law.”

It also includes a framework for astronaut conduct while on board, including criminal jurisdiction and rules to prevent harassment.

Over 70 metres long and 108 metres wide, with its distinctive solar arrays, the station would weigh around 400 tonnes on Earth.

Its primary function is scientific research, from medicines and human biology to the fundamentals of the Universe.

Its crew are part of the experiment, judging the effects of living in space and zero gravity for up to up to year, as a prelude to deep space voyages.

They make life as comfortable as possible, using a rinse-less shampoo and liquid soap and water in pouches as an alternative to showers. Going to the bathroom is a more complex process, involving leg restrains and a vacuum seal.

Astronauts on the ISS sleep in small personalised cabins that include reading lamps and music with personal effects stored in nets. Food is stored and eaten from disposable packages, meaning there is no washing up. Salt and pepper are kept in liquid form because it would be too risky to have flakes floating in zero gravity.

Food, water and equipment are sent up on supply ships like the Space X Falcon capsule that carried the winning Genes in Space competition experiment by Dubai schoolgirl Alia Al Mansoori.

Her genetic samples also carried a surprise treat for the ISS crew. They were kept cold on blocks of ice cream.

For Muslim astronauts, there is a particular challenge. How to face Makkah when the location is moving up to 180 degrees during a single prayer.

For Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszapha in 2007, the issue was resolved by his country’s fatwa council, which ruled it should be determined by his best guess at the start of prayer.

Kneeling in a space suit and in zero gravity, they also agreed, could be dispensed with.