WASHINGTON — On the heels of the first flight of an Emirati in space, the United Arab Emirates’ space agency expects to soon expand its small corps of astronauts in anticipation of future missions in the next several years.
In a panel discussion at the 70th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 25, Salem Al Marri, assistant director general and astronaut program manager at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, said the UAE Space Agency was considering a second astronaut selection round to add to its two-person team.
“We’re now considering and opening up the selection process again and selecting one or two more, and adding them to our first selection group,” he said. He didn’t state when that second selection process would take place.
The UAE announced plans in 2017 to establish its own astronaut corps, initially to take advantage of a short-term flight to the International Space Station. The space agency received more than 4,000 applications from people of all walks of life.
“We expected a high number of applicants for the program, but the number really exceeded our expectations,” said Saud Karmastaji, director of corporate communications at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. More than a third of applicants were women, and the ages of those applied ranged from 17 to 67. That range in ages “was very shocking, to be honest,” he said.
The selection process took about 10 months, Al Marri said, narrowing down the more than 4,000 people who applied to two people: fighter pilot Hazza Al Mansoori and engineer Sultan Al Nayadi. Al Mansoori flew to the International Space Station on a short-duration flight, launching on the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft Sept. 25 and returning Oct. 3 on the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft.
Al Mansoori participated in 16 experiments during the flight, said Mariam Al Zarooni, head of the studies unit of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, ranging from studying the effects on the human body during the short spaceflight to experiments linked to school programs. He also performed educational outreach activities while on the station.
With that flight now complete, the space agency wants to plan for future missions. “The first strategic objective was to launch the first astronaut,” Al Marri said. “The second strategic objective was to have a sustainable program and continue launching.”
The one or two additional astronauts, he said, would likely feature people “with different skill sets” than the existing two. “We always focus on selecting the best of the best.”
That larger corps will go through “complete training,” including preparations for spacewalks. “From there we will be looking at specific flights that would be in line with our scientific and strategic objectives.”
He didn’t discuss what kinds of flights the agency would be looking for, including whether they would be return trips to the ISS on Soyuz or commercial crew vehicles or other opportunities, such as China’s planned space station. “Our target is that, in the next three to five years, we’ve started our next flight.”
For now, the UAE program is for Emiratis only. “Currently there isn’t a plan” for a regional astronaut corps, similar to that run by the European Space Agency, Al Marri said. However, he left the door open for eventually including astronauts from neighboring countries as part of a regional space cooperation group. “I think it will definitely go towards that.”