Story written for CBS News & used with permission
In the first of three flights planned for Monday, SpaceX counts down to the deep launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule carrying two NASA astronauts, a Russian cosmonaut and a history-making United Arab Emirates astronaut to the International Space Station.
Sultan Al Neyadi, a father of six, is the second Emirati to fly in space, but the first is charged with a full six-month stay aboard the station. During his expedition, two Saudi planes will also visit the lab complex for about a week as part of a commercial mission operated by Houston-based Axiom Space.
“I think it will be really fun,” Al Neyadi said after arriving at the Kennedy Space Center last week. “It’s for science, for spreading knowledge about how important flying (in space) is and pushing the boundaries of exploration, not just in the leading countries.
Our region is also hungry to know more. And I believe we will be ambassadors on these missions. Hopefully we can come back with knowledge and share everything we learn with everyone.”
Al Neyadi, Crew 6 Commander Stephen Bowen, Pilot Warren “Woody” Hoburgh and Cosmonaut Andrei Fedyaev planned to climb in the Crew Dragon atop Platform 39A at Kennedy Space Center after 11 p.m. ET to await liftoff at 1:45 a.m. Monday.
Climbing far to the northeast along a trajectory inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator, Crew Dragon was expected to reach its initial orbit about nine minutes after liftoff, separating from the Falcon 9 second stage two and a half minutes later.
From that point on, the SpaceX capsule will perform an automatic rendezvous, catching up with the space station about 25 hours after launch. Docking is expected at the top port of the lab’s Harmony front unit at 2:38 a.m. on Tuesday.
Unlike shuttle crews, who spent the time between launch and docking doing heat shield inspections and other tightly scripted activities, Crew Dragon fliers are free to structure their schedules as they see fit, enjoying a relatively quiet day in space before starting their real work on the space station.
They will be welcomed aboard by Crew 5 commander Nicole Mann and Josh Kasada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and cosmonaut Anna Kikina, the first Russian to take off aboard the Crew Dragon. They arrived at the station last October and plan to return to Earth around March 6 to finish a 151-day mission.
Crew-6 pilots Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio will also be welcomed. They set out for the lab last September and originally planned to return home in March.
But their ferry ship Soyuz MS-22 was crippled on December 14th when a supposed microscopic meteorite tore the radiator line. After analysis, the Russian engineers concluded that the spacecraft could not be used safely again due to the potential for sensitive systems to overheat.
Instead, a Soyuz replacement aircraft — the MS-23 — was launched last Thursday, carrying equipment and supplies in place of the crew. The spacecraft successfully docked with the station on Saturday night, providing Prokopyev and his colleagues with a safe ride home.
But to get the crew rotation schedule back on track, the trio will have to spend an additional six months in space, returning home next fall after a full year in orbit. They will share the station with Crew 6 for most of that time.
Al Neyadi will be the second small cadre of Emirati astronauts to fly into space. A compatriot, Hazzaa Al Mansoori, visited the space station as part of a short-term Soyuz visit earlier, but Al Neyadi is the first to be assigned to the six-month mission as a full-scale station crew member.
“My colleague Hazzaa Al Mansouri and two additional astronauts are training (at) the Johnson Space Center for future missions,” Al Neyadi said. “Being an astronaut on Crew-6 is a great honor and a great responsibility.”
Perhaps not widely known in the United States, he said in an interview with CBS News, “runs an interesting number of activities.” “We have satellites, we have a probe orbiting Mars, we have a probe on its way to the surface of the moon.”
During the half year he spent in space, Al Neyadi said that he and his companions will be “the hands, eyes and ears of scientists who have been working for years towards a specific experiment. Some experiments are underway, some will end soon and others are just beginning.”
He highlighted an experiment to study heart cells in microgravity and the ability to observe heart tissue “beating in space”.
“This is something like the cutting-edge technology that one day, when we start 3D printing organs, it’s really important to see how the structure is built in microgravity. So this can give us a really good idea of how these tissues are built.”
But it won’t be all and no play.
An expert in the Japanese martial arts of jiu-jitsu said, “I have a kimono that I’m going to wear on the plane and maybe do some moves,” he said. He also plans to share one of his favorite foods with his crewmates.
“I love appointments, I will take appointments. I hope to share this with everyone, especially in Ramadan. This is a request from the leader, and I cannot say no to my leader!”
The Crew-6 launch is the first of three Falcon 9 flights planned for Monday with launches twice in the afternoon from the east and west coasts to put two constellations of Starlink internet satellites into orbit. The company plans to launch up to 100 or so in 2023, an unprecedented rate of flight.
To maintain that pace, “we have to be able to do multiple operations in the flow at the same time,” said Benji Reed, Senior Director of Human Spaceflight at SpaceX. “We’re excited to see how that plays out and to see if we’re able to launch that many in a row in that quick amount of time.
“But above all, the priority is crew flight and crew safety,” he said. “This will always take precedence over other flights.”
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