02 March 2023

SpaceX launches astronauts from US, UAE and Russia to space station

02 March 2023

SpaceX has launched four astronauts to the International Space Station for Nasa, including the first person from the Arab world going up for an extended stay.

The Falcon rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre shortly after midnight, illuminating the night sky as it headed up the East Coast.

Nearly 80 spectators from the United Arab Emirates watched from the launch site as Sultan al-Neyadi — only the second Emirati to fly to space — set off on his six-month mission.

Half a world away in Dubai and elsewhere across the UAE, schools and offices planned to broadcast the launch live.

Also in the Dragon capsule that is due at the space station on Friday were Nasa’s Stephen Bowen, a retired Navy submariner, and Warren “Woody” Hoburg, a former research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Andrei Fedyaev, who has retired from the Russian Air Force.

“Welcome to orbit,” SpaceX Launch Control radioed, noting lift-off occurred four years to the day after the capsule’s first orbital test flight. “If you enjoyed your ride, please don’t forget to give us five stars.”

The first attempt to launch them was called off on Monday at the last minute because of a clogged filter in the engine ignition system.

“It may have taken two times, but it was worth the trip,” Mr Bowen said.

They will replace a US-Russian-Japanese crew that has been up there since October. The other station residents are two Russians and an American whose six-month stay was doubled, until September, after their Soyuz capsule sprang a leak. A replacement Soyuz arrived last weekend.

Mr Al-Neyadi, a communications engineer, served as back-up for the first Emirati astronaut, Hazzaa al-Mansoori, who rode a Russian rocket to the space station in 2019 for a week-long visit. The oil-rich federation paid for Mr Al-Neyadi’s seat on the SpaceX flight.

He thanked everyone in Arabic and then English once reaching orbit. “Launch was incredible. Amazing,” he said.

The UAE’s minister for public education and advanced technology, Sarah al-Amiri, said the long mission “provides us a new venue for science and scientific discovery for the country”.

“We don’t want to just go to space and then not have much to do there or not have impact,” said the director general of the UAE’s space centre in Dubai, Salem al-Marri.

The Emirates already have a spacecraft orbiting Mars, and a mini rover is hitching a ride to the moon on a Japanese lander. Two new UAE astronauts are training with Nasa’s latest astronaut picks in Houston.

Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first Arab in space, launching aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985. He was followed two years later by Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris, launched by Russia. Both were in space for about a week.

Mr Al-Neyadi will be joined this spring by two Saudi astronauts going to the space station on a short private SpaceX flight paid for by their government.

“It’s going to be really exciting, really interesting” to have three Arabs in space at once, he said last week. “Our region is also thirsty to learn more.”

He is taking up lots of dates to share with his crewmates, especially during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which begins this month. As for observing Ramadan in orbit, he said fasting is not compulsory since it could make him weak and jeopardise his mission.

Mr Bowen, the crew’s leader, said the four have jelled well as a team despite differences between their countries. Even with the tension over the war in Ukraine, the US and Russia have continued to work together on the space station and trade seats on rides there.

“It’s just tremendous to have the opportunity to fly with these guys,” Mr Bowen said.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox