Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Emirati astronaut's doctor tells of crash course in 'space medicine' for historic mission

Hanan Al Suwaidi was flight surgeon for Hazza Al Mansouri

Dr Hanan Al Suwaidi was the flight surgeon for astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri's mission to space. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Dr Hanan Al Suwaidi was the flight surgeon for astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri's mission to space. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Hundreds were put through gruelling physical and mental exams before Hazza Al Mansouri was chosen to become the first Emirati in space.

But he was not the only Emirati who had to get through rigorous selection to earn a place on the history-making mission.

Hanan Al Suwaidi, a consultant family physician from Dubai, was selected as flight surgeon for Maj Al Mansouri — charged with looking after his health before and after his journey to space, as well as while he was on board the International Space Station.

It was the first time I saw the whole country - children, the elderly, citizens, residents - come together

Hanan Al Suwaidi

It meant taking a crash course in ‘space medicine’, seeing the astronaut and back-up Sultan Al Neyadi through their two-week isolation period ahead of the flight and then eight days of looking after a patient outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“My role as the flight surgeon was to take care of his health and well-being before, during and after the mission,” she told The National, during the Arab Health 2020 event in Dubai on Monday.

“It is a full time job, because we spend time with them during the two-week isolation period, and during the mission we are in contact frequently to make sure they’re able to overcome the challenges of the space environment.

“Space medicine in the UAE is a new discipline. It was a huge responsibility, but also a huge privilege. We felt we were fulfilling an ambition of our founding father, so achieving that, what it means is beyond words."

The doctor, 39, was trained in areas including the effect radiation levels in space would have on her patient, and how to ensure Maj Al Mansouri was mentally prepared to cope with isolation and confinement in space.

She also had to learn a few words in Russian, and how to teach her patient to stay fit in a weightlessness environment, while also knowing how this could affect his health.

She had to get to grips with a space station health system with complex rules and medical equipment to monitor and maintain the health of astronauts.

Hanan Al Suwaidi, left, with Hazza al Mansouri, centre, and back-up astonaut Sultan al Neyadi. MBRSC
Hanan Al Suwaidi, left, with Hazza Al Mansouri, and back-up astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi. Courtesy Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

She was in touch with Maj Al Mansouri four times during his eight-day stay in space from Moscow to make sure he was healthy. A colleague travelled to the landing site to carry out the post-mission checks, which astronauts go through immediately after returning to earth.

She has kept in touch with her patient since he returned to Earth a national hero.

“We’re very proud of both Hazza and Sultan," she said. "They have really portrayed the best image of Emirati youth. They were very committed, dedicated, passionate about what they were doing.

“Hazza was very focused on the mission. It was a challenge for him but he passed it with flying colours. The whole experience was very emotional, for everyone involved in this project, but also everyone back home.

"Although we were away from all the events that were happening in the UAE, we felt the impact.

"It was the first time I saw the whole country - children, the elderly, citizens, residents - come together. We have seen a lot of children become more and more engaged [in science]."

Dr Al Suwaidi was chosen for the role after she was put forward by Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences, where she works as an academic, at the same time as a practising doctor.

She does not yet know if she will be asked to perform the flight surgeon role again, with the search for the UAE’s next astronaut already under way. However, she said she would be happy to serve role if asked.

And having already played a major role in one space mission, she believes there is no reason a woman could not take on an even more prominent role — by becoming the first ever female Arab astronaut.

“Today, most of the medical school students are female, the UAE really supports women and empowers us,” she said. “I’m very proud of what Emirati women have achieved so far.

“At the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, 42 per cent of their workforce is female. [A female astronaut] is definitely something the astronaut programme can look at … the Emirati woman can be the scientist, the physician, and the astronaut.”

Arab Health - in pictures

Updated: January 27, 2020 06:38 PM

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