UAE astronauts
UAE astronauts Sultan Al Nayadi (left) and Hazza Al Mansoori (right) will be joined by two new astronauts early next year, to be selected from a pool of more tham 4,000 applicants. Credit: MBRSC

WASHINGTON — The United Arab Emirates plans to double the size of its astronaut corps by early next year with the selection of two new astronauts from a pool of more than 4,000 applicants.

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre announced May 10 that it received 4,305 applications from citizens of the UAE to become astronauts. The deadline in this latest round of the astronaut selection process closed May 1.

The number of applicants was about 7% higher than in the first astronaut selection round in 2018. That initial round led to the selection of astronauts Hazzaa AlMansoori and Sultan AlNeyadi. AlMansoori was the first Emirati in space, flying to the International Space Station on a Soyuz spacecraft in September 2019 for a week-long stay.

The head of the UAE astronaut program, Salem AlMarri, said in a May 11 interview that this latest round saw not only an increase in the quantity of applications, but also their quality. The initial round, he said, attracted people who were curious about the program but not necessarily qualified.

“This time around, we definitely have an increase in the profile of people that we’re looking for, people who are definitely serious and continuing to the end,” he said, citing as examples an increase in the number of applicants with advanced degrees. “The number of people that we think look more serious than the previous time has increased.”

He attributed that increase in qualified applicants to people better understanding the overall astronaut selection process as well as AlMansoori’s flight to the ISS last year. “The first time, we had a great number of people applying, and it was all very new. A lot of people were thinking, ‘Is this going to happen? What’s it going to be like?’” he said. “Once Hazzaa was selected and flew to the ISS, it became a reality. So, the second time around, we got very serious candidates.”

With the astronaut application process closed, AlMarri said that a panel will review the applications, narrowing them down to about 300 people. Those individuals will then be interviewed, a process that will be done online because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then go through psychological, medical and other tests. That will reduce the number of candidates to 100, and another interview panel with then select 50 for additional testing and interviews.

“We’ll be doing this from now all the way to the end of the year,” he said. The space agency will announce the two people selected to be astronauts in January 2021.

AlMarri said he hopes the new astronauts will add diversity to the corps. AlMansoori is a fighter pilot and AlNeyadi an engineer, but AlMarri said the new class of applicants includes doctors, scientists and others.

That desire for diversity extends to gender. About 1,400 applicants were women, and AlMarri said that while there’s no formal requirement to select a woman, he hopes that happens. “We will select the best and the brightest from the people that applied,” he said. “I would love to see one or two of those seats go to a female Emirati.”

When any of those astronauts will fly is uncertain. The UAE has not announced any formal agreements to fly its astronauts, but AlMarri said the space agency has been in discussions with different ISS partners to begin training for the two current astronauts later this year, to be followed by the new astronauts some time after their selection next year.

“While they are training, we will be looking at the different options for flights and select the most suitable for us going forward,” he said. That could include flights on Russian Soyuz spacecraft as well as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. “We plan through next year to look at trying to get different opportunities to secure a seat for one of our astronauts.”

He added that the UAE isn’t considering partnering with China, which plans to assemble its own space station over the next few years and has shown an interest in flying astronauts from other nations. One option, he said, is to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital vehicles like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo for training and research, but that they’re not actively pursuing that currently.

AlMarri said the youngest applicant was an 11-year-old — well below the minimum age of 18 — who he thinks was inspired to apply when AlMansoori toured schools in the UAE after his trip to the ISS. “I think that outreach excited a few of the kids a little too much.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...