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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

What does it take to get a place on the UAE's first astronaut programme?

Young, old, male, female – all are welcome to sign up, says the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. And in the first week of applications, over 1,000 hopefuls already have

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre is looking for four degree-qualified citizens to be the first recruits to its new astronaut corps. Satish Kumar / The National
The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre is looking for four degree-qualified citizens to be the first recruits to its new astronaut corps. Satish Kumar / The National

Since applications began just over a week ago, there are already over 1,000 hopefuls, and counting – all are vying for a chance at one of just four coveted places on the UAE’s first astronaut training programme.

But what does it take to prove you have the right stuff?

“[The successful candidates] will have well-rounded skills and capabilities,” says Salem Al Marri, assistant director general at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, who is managing the astronaut programme.

“They will have to be a good leader and a good follower. They should be able to lead, but at the same time take leadership advice, or at least orders from others, because you really have to work as a team.”

“They would also have to have good mechanical hand skills because they should be able to handle tools. They would be able to speak in public in a very good manner, to be able to make presentations to large groups of people.

“There is a lot these astronauts will have to do,” he says, perhaps unnecessarily.

Want to be an astronaut? Apply here.

In the short time since the space centre first announced it was looking to recruit the first UAE astronauts to be sent into space, applications have been flooding in. With two months to go before the deadline, it is clear interest across the country is huge.

Salem Humaid Al Marri,assistant director general for the science and technology sector, during an interview at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Salem Humaid Al Marri,assistant director general for the science and technology sector, during an interview at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Mr Al Marri wants to make it clear that this is an opportunity open to everyone with UAE citizenship and the minimum qualification of a degree. “Male or female? It doesn’t matter. Sheikh Mohammed mentioned in one of his tweets that we will take the most suitable and the most capable.

“We are looking at skillset. We are not looking at age and we are not looking at gender. We are looking at the most suitable to conduct these missions and represent the United Arab Emirates.

“If somebody comes and says 'I’m 50 years old, I’m too old'. You’re not. That is a good age. You've got a lot of experience. So we are looking at these age ranges. I would tell people – whether you are 18 or you are 50, please apply!”

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre is a collection of deceptively unassuming buildings tucked behind Mushrif Park on the eastern edge of Dubai. Yet this is where some of the most exciting challenges in space exploration are being developed.

There is the Emirates Mars Mission, which, in 2020, will send a probe to explore the red planet, making the UAE the first Arab and also Muslim country to attempt such a feat.

And next year will see the launch of DubaiSat-3, the first Earth-orbiting satellite to be designed by Emirati scientists and built here.

The astronaut corps is part of this grand vision for the UAE’s role in space. At its most ambitious is the idea of building a city on Mars by 2117, with the preparatory work done by the new Mars Science City, a massive research centre already being built in the desert near Dubai that will simulate conditions on the planet.

The successful astronauts will carry out experiments on the International Space Station as part of this objective.

“Getting humans to Mars and being a part of that process is an objective for the UAE,” says Mr Al Marri.

An artist’s impression of what the Mars One settlement on the Red Planet might look like. Bryan Versteeg / Mars One
An artist’s impression of what the Mars One settlement on the Red Planet might look like. Bryan Versteeg / Mars One

“This is another step. You need to have an astronaut corps that is going to be conducting experiments that will relate to living a long life in space.

“There will be experiments conducted here on the ground in our Mars science city. We are looking at taking those experiments into the ISS and continuing some of the experiments the other space players have been doing.”

But first things first: once applications have closed for the astronaut training programme, there will be a ten-month initial assessment process.

“We will be able to choose our astronauts by the end of next year, probably the fourth quarter of 2018,” says Mr Al Marri. “After that we go into training. So probably a year of basic training and a couple of years, or a year and a half, of mission specific training, depending on the option of the flight you chose.”

It is likely that the first UAE astronaut will be orbiting the Earth sometime around 2020. They will be the first from an Arab country since Sultan bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1985.

How will they get into space? Since the end of the US space shuttle programme – which ferried astronauts, equipment and supplies to the ISS – in 2011, astronauts travelling to the space station have depended entirely on Russia’s ageing, but reliable, Soyuz spacecraft.

In the coming months, however, transport options will significantly improve with Boeing’s Starliner ship, which can carry up to seven, due to make its first manned test flight in 2018. Additionally, a manned version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule is already flying supply missions to the ISS.

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In the longer term, Nasa is pushing ahead with its Orion and Space Launch System, with the intention of returning the US to manned deep space exploration. Its maiden flight is projected for 2019.

The UAE has not yet decided which ship it will choose to fly its astronauts, says Mr Al Marri. Nor has it decided who it will partner with for training them.

“We are looking at all the different options. There are space agencies, there are private companies that do these things, and we are looking at which option will be suitable for us,” he says.

“We are going to have an astronaut corps, so that means astronauts for the next 30 or 40 years. Not all of these astronauts will fly on the first flight, so we might choose different training programmes for different astronauts. We are looking at what will be best for the United Arab Emirates.”

The UAE recognises that space is an expensive business, he says, and that international partners are essential for success.

“The cost of [going into] space is what is driving a lot of this international cooperation. The UAE really has a unique position – because we started relatively new, we’re able to do things in quite a different way to bring down the cost and we’re also open to partner with all countries.”

“Dubai-Sat 1 and DubaiSat-2 were international partnerships with Korea. With the Mars Mission we are working with entities in the United States. With this programme we envisage working with all of the ISS partners.

Former Atlantis shuttle commander Chris Ferguson models Boeing's new spacesuit in a mock up of the Starliner capsule. Boeing
Former Atlantis shuttle commander Chris Ferguson models Boeing's new spacesuit in a mock up of the Starliner capsule. Boeing

“Partnership are the key to our survival and I think the survival of other space countries. Now, what happens afterwards? We don’t want to have ‘this one mission up, this one mission down’, and our space ambitions stop, which is what we have seen in other countries.

“The reason we are choosing four [astronauts] and we are saying this is an astronaut corps, is that, yes, we will have that first mission, but every mission after that we will build upon it.

“Now is one of the most exciting times to be in space. You've got Boeing, you've got Space X, all these entities are now providing solutions that in the 2020s will give access to space in a way that doesn’t exist today.”

One of the tasks for the space centre in the near future will be to negotiate precious slots on the ISS. Those who have invested most in the space station – the US, Russia, Europe and Japan – have first call, but the UAE’s increasing investment in space technology and research will be an important bargaining chip to send up its own astronauts.

“It’s all about showing we have shared objectives, and that we want to work together on these things,” says Mr Al Marri.

“The UAE has strong ambitions and shared objectives. We have projects here that space agencies globally are interested in, such as the Emirates Mars Mission and the Mars Science City. So we are working together to see how we can cooperate on our projects with them and how they can support our objectives in human space flight.”

First, though, those all-important UAE astronauts must be found. “These guys, they'll be heroes,” says Mr Al Marri. “They will inspire future generations to go in to STEM (Science,Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. They will inspire future generations to think big and they will inspire our future explorers.

“The national psyche here in the UAE is that we can achieve whatever we put our minds to. [Our leaders] say we like to achieve the impossible and aim for the impossible and I think [this programme] is in line with that.

“Human space flight is the pinnacle of human exploration and there is still so much we don’t know. For us in the UAE to be an active part of that… it’s very important.”