Arab astronauts - GulfToday

Arab astronauts

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Rayyanah Barnawi.

Saudi astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi is the first Muslim, Arab woman to be blasted into space and join the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting the earth. Barnawi, 33, a stem cell and cancer researcher, and her male colleague Ali al-Qarni, 31, a fighter pilot, were the second and third Saudis to make this wonderous journey. They were not the only Arabs to reach the ISS.

The docking of their space capsule was monitored on the ISS by Sultan al-Neyadi, the Emirates’ second astronaut who is on a six-month mission. He was the first Arab to take part in a long-duration stay at the ISS. Shortly before the arrival of the Saudis, he had achieved another record by being the first Arab to spacewalk and take part in repair work on the ISS.

The first Muslim, Arab astronaut was Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, an air force pilot who flew aboard the United States space shuttle Discovery in 1985. He was also the first royal from any country to enter space as he is a son of King Salman. The second Muhammed Ahmed Faris was a Syrian military aviator. He was the first Syrian and the second Arab in space. He flew as research cosmonaut on a Soyuz rocket to the Mir space station in July 1987, spending nearly eight days space. He carried the first earth soil into space: from Damascus, of course. The third Arab and first Emirati astronaut was Hazza al Mansouri who in 2019 flew aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft to the ISS, where he stayed for eight days.

Barnawi and Qarni were the first Arab astronauts to take part in a purely private commercial venture. They flew in an Axiom Space capsule. dubbed “Dragon Freedom,” propelled by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The mission, commanded by US veteran US astronaut Peggy Witson and piloted by Tennessee racing car driver John Schoffner, took off from the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Witson, 63, has spent a NASA record 665 days in space during her long career and is not ready to retire any time soon.

The Emirates established its space agency in 2014. Two more astronauts are under training, Nora al-Matrooshi and Mohammad al-Mulla. Born in Sharjah in 1993, Matrooshi is a mechanical engineer and astronaut. In April 2021, she was selected to train with the US NASA Astronaut Group to work as an international mission specialist. Mulla, 35, is a pilot who heads the Training Department at the Air Wing Centre at the Dubai Police Department. He was also selected in 2021 to train at NASA.

Saudi Arabia launched its space programme in 2018. Barnawi and Qarni were the first to complete the nine-month NASA training programme before their flight nearly 40 years after Prince Sultan became the Arab space pioneer.

Of the 636 space travellers, 74 have been women. There has been one astronaut each from France, Italy, South Korea, and the United Kingdom and there have been two each from Canada, China, the Emirates, Japan; three from Saudi Arabia. There have been sixwomen from the Soviet Union/Russia; and 56 from the United States. Only 11 per cent are women and 6.6 are spacewalkers. Space remains is largely a man’s place.

The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova who in 1963 launched aboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft on a three-day mission and was the first woman to orbit the earth. Nearly 20 years passed before another woman flew in space. In 1982, Svetlana Savitskaya, and two crewmates went for a two-week stay aboard Salyut 7, joining long-stay colleagues. This was the first time a space station hosted a mixed-gender crew. In 1983, astronaut Sally Ride made history as the first US woman in space by spending seven days aboard space shuttle Challenger. These forays into space, initiated a competition over “first” accomplishments between the Soviet Union and the US.

The ISS is the largest hosting facility in low earth orbit. Russia, the US, Japan, Europe, and Canada are partners in the project which is a laboratory where research is conducted in astrobiology, astronomy, meteorology, physics, and other fields. The ISS is the ninth residential space station and has replaced the Soviet and later Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations and the American Skylab. ISS is the largest man-built object in the solar system and the largest satellite in low orbit at about 400 kilometres above earth. The station comprises 16 modules, six Russian and ten US. The first section was launched in 1988 and the initial long-stay crews arrived in 2000. The station has been occupied for more than 22 years. The ISS is services by numerous national and commercial spacecraft.

Since space suits and ISS accommodations have been built to suit men, some adjustments have been made for female astronauts but, by and large, women have had to manage as best they can. For both genders, the limited amount of recycled water available is a problem and even a small amount flies in all directions due to the lack of gravity. Keeping clean is a problem. Astronauts have to take sponge baths with special towels, swallow their toothpaste after brushing their teeth, and use creams to combat dry skin as the ISS atmosphere is dry. Astronauts are secured by restraints when sleeping. Food, selected by astronauts, is freeze-dried or thermostabilised, stored in pouches and reconstituted before consumption. they can also eat nuts, granola bars, and biscuits packaged in laboratories preparing space foods.

Women face the same physical and psychological problems as men. While research has shown that adverse effects from short missions are similar but has suggested that women could do better than men on long lights. The main obstacle female astronauts must overcome remains discrimination.

Photo: AFP

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