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Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri undergoes final test as lift-off nears

Exercise involves dealing with every possible emergency scenario in space

Moscow: What if a fire suddenly erupted on the International Space Station (ISS)? Or the Soyuz Capsule failed to dock on the ISS automatically?

Astronauts and officials at ground control will not leave these scenarios to chance without having a plan in place to first ensure the survival of astronauts and the preservation of assets, like the ISS, which is perhaps mankind’s greatest feat of engineering.

Every possible emergency scenario has been meticulously scrutinised, with contingency plans put in place to overcome any situation that may arise on-board. The speed of reaction to these emergencies is what was tested in the final exam, which was undertaken on Thursday and Friday at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC) in Star City, Russia, by two teams of astronauts preparing for September 25’s mission to the ISS.

The UAE’s first Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri entered the commission room on Friday with his game face on, sporting the Sokol space suit that weighs 10kg.

The former military pilot was joined by his colleagues Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir and Russian commander Oleg Skripochka as the Prime Crew, and their second day of testing was allotted for the Soyuz capsule examination.

Sources from the GCTC on Friday revealed to Gulf News that the Prime Crew received a perfect score for their Thursday exam on the Russian segment of the ISS.

“They got five out of five, the highest score. This is not an easy feat,” an official told Gulf News.

Russian commander Sergey Ryzhikov led the reserve crew with Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, and Nasa astronaut Thomas Marshburn.

What were the exams about?

Salem Al Merri, Assistant Director-General of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) that is running the UAE Astronaut Programme, explained what Hazza and Sultan and the other crew members had to accomplish in two days.

“The first set of exams is on the Soyuz where the crew goes through the whole process of what they would do during the launch process itself, the flight to the ISS, the docking and the hatch opening. They go through that whole process which takes about seven hours in real time,” Al Merri explained to Gulf News.

“Once they finish docking, they will also go through the unlocking and the landing back in Kazakhstan. That whole procedure takes about nine hours and that’s basically the first set of simulations that they go through,” he added.

As part of the second set of exams, five challenges and scenarios were there to choose from in envelopes that covered a multitude of emergency situations.

“Here in this room, the crew goes through the Russian segment of the ISS, the same process is there but it’s more on emergency procedures that would occur on the Russian segment of the ISS. Some of that is fire, smoke, it depends on the envelope that they selected. It might have things like communication failure, fire and smoke, hazards that they have to deal with and this simulation is a bit short. It’s about four hours of simulations which will start around 2pm to 6pm,” Al Merri said.

“After this, the committee will approve them for going to Baikonur Cosmodrome for the flight. Basically that will be the main time when we will know what the results are, and whether they have been approved [for the mission].”

Al Merri clarified that the exams are not necessarily a “pass or fail”, unless there is a very critical error.

“These are more about following the procedures and learning from any mistakes that occur. At the end of the day, the crew is well-trained. The expectation is everything will go according to plan and if mistakes do happen, which we know can happen, there’s a long debrief that they go through to make sure that those types of mistakes are learnt from and that they don’t happen again,” he explained.

Working as a team

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News during the examination, Sultan Al Neyadi and Thomas Marshburn from the reserve team said their greatest strength as a team is the team itself.

“Tom is the left seater he’s the flight engineer one. I’m the right seater,” said Al Neyadi. “Each of us has roles to play. I’m sure Tom is playing a bigger role here but we’re working as a team with the commander who is sitting in the middle. We’re trying to go through the flight programme together and make the flight as normal as possible,” he added.

“The way we train means that we would be ready to step in at the last moment even up until the day of the launch to conduct the flight,” said Marshburn, who is a veteran of two space flights, STS-127 and Expedition 34/35.

“The strengths of all crew members is why we enjoy working together. We have a lot of respect for each other. Being able to work with Sultan has been a joy. They come with a lot of experience as well and act like experienced crew members. That’s our great strength,” he added.