Saleh Al Ameri with 5 other astronauts onboard the analog mission. Photo: Supplied
UAE's first analogue astronaut Saleh Al Ameri is nearing the end of his eight-month-long isolation mission on July 3 at the NEK ground-based analogue facility in Moscow, Russia.
Astronauts sacrifice a lot when they venture off to space or train for future missions. Al Ameri is a testament to the rigorous process that undoubtedly tested his grit, and he can't wait to carry his newborn daughter for the first time in his arms after the egress.
The project – Sirius 20/21 – analog missions are studying psychological and physiological effects of isolation on humans and team dynamics to help prepare for long-term space exploration missions.
Speaking to Khaleej Times exclusively, Sheikha Al Falasi, Science Lead UAE Analog Mission at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), says, "We know such missions measure the psychological and physiological impact on humans living in extreme environments. Saleh is the main astronaut, and Abdullah al Hammadi is the backup, who is also at the IBMP (Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences) facility following Saleh and the team.
"So, Abdullah messages Saleh and they send each other videos and emails with a five-minute delay. We sent a video to Saleh telling him how excited we are as we prepare for the egress. He was very happy. His wife recently delivered a beautiful, healthy baby girl, so he's very excited to see his daughter."
She adds, "He has seen the images and videos sent to him. Imagine how big a sacrifice it is. I cannot imagine the mental, emotional, and physical stress he has been going through. But then you are representing your country. You're doing this for a bigger purpose. Saleh misses his daughter and his family. Sometimes you would feel down, and sometimes you wouldn't, but they stick to the biggest objective, which is the success of the mission."
Al Ameri has been in isolation ever since he became part of the SIRIUS-21 crew in November 2021. At Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems, over the last eight months, he has conducted 70 experiments.
Sirius 20/21 astronauts tested to the limits
Besides experiments involving haptics, hydroponics and using Canadarm2 to seize cargo spaceships and perform maintenance activities at the International Space Station (ISS), Al Falasi explains another challenging feat underlying the build-up of tiredness which often happens during long-term spaceflight.
"We had a 48-hour sleep deprivation study. It might seem strange, but the mission is simulating going to the Moon and coming back. Sometimes, there is a lack of communication or communication delay due to the distance.
"So, we put that scenario to explore - a situation where there is a loss of communication on Earth and with our command-and-control centres. The crew must withstand this, communicate with each other, and make decisions. The command-and-control centres back in the IBMP facility in Moscow did not interfere and did not talk to them exactly for 48 hours. This is important because they are simulating a disaster happening in space.
"There are a lot of questions that we don't know about space, and it's crucial for us to keep exploring these scenarios in the analog missions because in space, you don't have the luxury of time. You have processes and systems; also, everything is very expensive in space," she added.
Shedding light on the challenges that coronavirus continues to pose, Al Falasi explains how they had to double their efforts after a delay caused by the pandemic.
"We were doing such a mission for the first time, so there were things that we had to learn the hard way. Some challenges we faced were related to logistics, and a few things were out of our hands. But we managed it successfully because we had different teams coming together and helping each other. We overcame some hurdles with partner collaboration, with teams back in Russia and the team here in the UAE and others.
"Also due to Covid-19, Saleh will have to be in Moscow for the next two weeks as he cannot have an interaction with the outside world right away, as that can (possibly) contaminate the data."
UAE soon aims to build its own Analog mission in the country
Shining light on how the country continues to prepare for deep space destinations, Al Falasi says, "in the future we're working with NASA on another analog program that we will be introduced very soon. We will be utilizing the expertise that we have gained from this mission. With the help of all the experience that Saleh has gained from being inside the capsule, and Abdullah Hammadi from monitoring all the operations that take place and with all the knowledge that we acquired, we will be able to build on that our foundation for the UAE analog mission in the future.
"We are aiming to build our own Analog mission here in the UAE by Emirati engineers on the Emirati land. So, we are working hard into bringing that knowledge and learning from all our wonderful partners all around the world and benefiting from them."
Explaining how the centre and the country does not discriminate based on gender but only emphasizes on caliber, Al Falasi says, out of six principal investigators (PIs) in the mission, four PIs are women."
In fact, Al Falasi herself worked with a singleness of purpose for long hours throughout her pregnancy, disallowing anything to come in the way of the larger goal.
"The moment I started the project in 2019, I was pregnant with my first child, and I delivered in 2020. Four months ago, I delivered my second child. I received huge support from my manager. I wanted to make my daughter proud. I want her to grow up and know that I did not let her stop me from creating and achieving my dreams."
She adds, "I think that it is crucial to point out that our government has put a strong foundation for equal pay and opportunities. I think that's critical for the growth of any nation across sectors."
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