Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has launched four astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, including the first person from the Arab world to go for an extended monthslong stay.
The Falcon rocket bolted from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida shortly after midnight on Thursday, illuminating the night sky as it headed up the East Coast.
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The trip to the International Space Station (ISS), a laboratory orbiting some 420km (250 miles) above Earth, was expected to take nearly 25 hours, with rendezvous planned for about 06:15 GMT on Friday.
Nearly 80 spectators from the United Arab Emirates watched from the launch site as astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi – only the second Emirati to fly to space – blasted 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 riding the Dragon capsule that is due at the space station on Friday: NASA’s Stephen Bowen, a retired Navy submariner who logged three space shuttle flights, and Warren “Woody” Hoburg, a former research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and space newbie, and Andrey Fedyaev, a space rookie who has retired from the Russian Air Force.
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.
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.
Al-Neyadi, a communications engineer, served as a backup for the first Emirati astronaut, Hazza al-Mansoori, who rode a Russian rocket to the space station in 2019 for a weeklong visit. The UAE paid for al-Neyadi’s seat on the SpaceX flight.
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 UAE already has 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 on board the 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.
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.
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,” Bowen said.