Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

One manned flight to go before the first Emirati astronaut lifts off

While Hazza Al Mansouri counts down, another space race begins as the US takes on Russia with new craft

The Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan June 6, 2018. Reuters
The Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan June 6, 2018. Reuters

Among the crowd gathered for the next Russian rocket launch to the International Space Station this month, none will be watching with more excitement and anticipation than two Emiratis.

Military pilot Hazza Al Mansouri is set to become the first UAE astronaut this September, while scientist Sultan Al Neyadi has been selected as backup for the mission.

The Soyuz lift-off scheduled for Saturday is the last manned flight to the International Space Station before the UAE’s great adventure on September 25.

This month’s flight, called MS-13, is taking three crew to the ISS. It will be followed by MS-14, an unmanned capsule testing a new escape system, and then MS-15, with Mr Al Mansouri.

All three missions are a demonstration of the complexity of space travel. Mr Al Mansouri will return to Earth on the capsule for MS-12, which left Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in March, and is docked at the ISS.

The Emirati was due to be on MS-12 at launch, but the date was pushed back because of a technical fault that cut short another Soyuz mission last year. Because Mr Al Mansouri’s pioneering mission is relatively short, at around 10 days, it now means he is taking the return seat previously allocated to Nasa’s Christina Koch.

Hazza Al Mansouri trains alongside Sultan Al Neyadi in Russia. Courtesy Dubai Media Office
Hazza Al Mansouri trains alongside Sultan Al Neyadi in Russia. Courtesy Dubai Media Office

She is expected to return home in February, 2020, after spending 328 days on the orbiting station and making her stay the longest for a woman in space.

The juggling required to maintain the space station is also a reminder that 50 years after the first American walked on the Moon, when it comes to manned space flight, the Russians are currently the only game in town.

But for how much longer?

America has paid a heavy price for ending its Space Shuttle programme without a replacement. And the price tag to Nasa for a return seat on a Soyuz flight is about $80 million (Dh293.8m). At around $20,000 for each of the 404 kilometres to the ISS, it is the world’s most expensive passenger ticket.

Reports say the UAE paid much less, although the exact figure has not been disclosed.

The said discount was probably a sensible move by the Russian space agency Roscosmos because competition from the Americans is just around the corner.

This year, Nasa is expected to send astronauts back into space on American rockets.

Two years ago, Chris Ferguson, Boeing’s director of the Starliner crew and a former astronaut, proudly showed The National the new Starliner capsule being developed for Nasa by Boeing at the Kennedy Space Centre.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Kennedy Space Centre carrying Alia Al Mansoori's Genes in Space experiment to the International Space Station on August 14, 2017. Scott A. Miller for The National
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Kennedy Space Centre carrying Alia Al Mansoori's Genes in Space experiment to the International Space Station on August 14, 2017. Scott A. Miller for The National

At the time, it was predicted the first crewed flight of the Starliner would take place in 2018. Mr Ferguson said the craft would be “safe, effective and hopefully more affordable than its predecessor”.

Each Starliner can potentially hold up to four astronauts plus cargo. Even allowing for development costs of the Starliner, the price of sending up to four American astronauts into space in a single flight will be dramatically cheaper than buying individual seats from Russia.

“That’s an order of magnitude cheaper. It’s good value for the taxpayer,” Mr Ferguson said. Except the Starliner is still grounded. There have been issues with the parachutes that return the capsule safely to Earth and problems with an engine on the Atlas 5 rocket that will carry the reusable capsule.

Boeing says the parachute system passed the test last month and it is now working for the first unmanned flight of the Starliner to the ISS on September 17, after it was delayed from March.

It hopes to make the first test crewed flight to the space station possibly in December, although a further delay to 2020 is possible.

The US government accountability office, which monitors how US taxpayers’ dollars are spent, certainly thinks Nasa should be cautious. This June, it warned the American space agency to seek “additional support regarding planning efforts to ensure uninterrupted access to the ISS”.

In other words, if needed, buy more Soyuz seats from the Russians.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, the company created by PayPal and Tesla billionaire Elon Musk, has developed the Dragon ship, also working in partnership with Nasa.

Cargo Dragons have successfully resupplied the ISS, including one that carried the experiment developed by Dubai pupil Alia Al Mansoori, winner of The National’s 2017 Genes in Space contest.

In March, SpaceX successfully docked an unmanned Dragon 2 capsule with the ISS and set the stage for the first American manned flight for eight years.

Nasa astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley prepared to make their historic return to space this month.

Then, on April 20, SpaceX conducted final tests on its in-flight abort system. The capsule exploded in a ball of fire, with a video leaked online accompanied by cries of “nooo” from company workers. Nobody was injured.

Perhaps optimistically, SpaceX has since rescheduled the maiden crewed voyage to November. Either way, it means both American companies will not be flying regular missions until next year, at the earliest.

While that leaves passenger space flight as a Russian monopoly, the money and time devoted to the Boeing and SpaceX rivals means they will eventually succeed.

To date, the US has spent nearly $4 billion on Soyuz flights since 2011, with the price tag rising at a rate of inflation of 372 per cent. For the Russian government, which also sells seats to the European Space Agency and Japan’s JAXA, Soyuz is a valuable source of foreign currency.

That is why Soyuz MS-14, sandwiched between this month’s crewed flight and the UAE’s MS-15, is so important.

The unmanned capsule is testing the abort system for the next generation of Russian space craft, the Soyuz-2.1a, an upgrade that will take a launch system designed in the 1960s well into the 21st Century.

The expected loss of many existing clients to the cheaper American commercial launch systems means Russia is looking for new customers, especially among countries developing space industries like the UAE.

While Mr Al Mansouri will go down as the first Emirati in space, he will not be the last. Backup astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi is ready to make a second fight, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre is developing an astronaut training corps for missions far into the future.

Who they will fly with is another matter. Officials at the MBRSC said in 2017 “we do envisage that we partner up with all of the major space agencies, somehow and in some structure” for future missions.

Last year, the UAE Space Agency signed an agreement to co-operate with Nasa for space exploration and human space flight. The UAE’s first astronaut programme could not have come at a better time – for the future of the country in space, the question is no longer when, but whom?

Updated: July 18, 2019 03:22 PM

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