CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA on Thursday, including the first person from the Arab world to depart for a month-long extended stay.
The Falcon rocket blasted out of the Kennedy Space Center shortly after midnight, lighting up the night sky as it headed for the East Coast.
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 – rocketed away for his six-month mission.
Half a world away in Dubai and elsewhere in the UAE, schools and offices planned to broadcast the launch live.
Also riding the Dragon capsule due Friday at the space station: NASA’s Stephen Bowen, a retired Navy submariner who has logged three space shuttle flights, and Warren “Woody” Hoburg, a former research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a space novice, and Andrei Fedyaev, a space novice who has retired from the Russian Air Force.
The first attempt to launch them was called off at the last minute on Monday due to a clogged filter in the engine’s ignition system.
They will replace an American-Russian-Japanese crew that has been there since October. The other station residents are two Russians and an American whose six-month stay was doubled, until September, after their Soyuz pod leaked. A replacement Soyuz arrived last weekend.
Al-Neyadi, a communications engineer, served as backup to 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 al-Neyadi’s seat on the SpaceX flight.
The UAE’s minister of public education and advanced technology, Sarah al-Amiri, said the long mission “provides us with 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 or impact there,” said the director-general of the UAE’s space center in Dubai, Salem al-Marri.
The Emirates already have a spacecraft orbiting Mars and a mini-rover lift to the moon on a Japanese lander. Two new UAE astronauts training with NASA’s latest astronaut picks in Houston.
Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first Arab in space, launching in 1985 aboard shuttle Discovery. Two years later, he was followed by the 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 heading to the space station on a short private SpaceX flight paid for by their government.
“It’s going to be very exciting, very interesting” to have three Arabs in space at the same time, he said last week. “Our region also wants to learn more.”
He takes many dates to share with his crew members, especially during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that begins this month. As for observing Ramadan in orbit, he said fasting is not mandatory as it could make him weak and jeopardize his mission.
Bowen, the leader of the crew, said the four have done well as a team, despite the differences between their countries. Even with the tension over the war in Ukraine, the US and Russia have continued to collaborate on the space station and trade seats on rides there.
“It’s just amazing to get the chance to fly with these guys,” said Bowen.
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