The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi will fly with Crew-6 on a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Al Neyadi will become the first UAE astronaut to serve a full increment on the International Space Station, joining Expeditions 68 and 69.
The UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre booked the flight through Axiom Space, which had a seat available thanks to a deal with NASA. Axiom Space agreed to give up a seat on the Russian Soyuz so that NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei could fly to the International Space Station in 2021.
Axiom Space currently has a separate multi-flight contract with SpaceX to send its astronauts to the International Space Station as part of preparations to add inflatable modules to the ISS. The first flight, AX-1, returned to Earth on April 25, 2022. Retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will command the next flight, AX-2.
The UAE had previously sent Major Hazzaa al-Mansoori to the ISS for an eight-day mission in 2019. Al-Mansoori flew on a Russian Soyuz. Sultan Al-Neyadi will be the first UAE astronaut to serve a full increment on the International Space Station.
The UAE is not part of the full list of International Space Station partners. This marks the first time a non-partner will have an astronaut serve a full increment on the space station.
The UAE has quite an active space program of its own. It successfully placed the “Hope” orbiter in Mars orbit in February 2022 and has plans to put a lunar rover on the Moon as early as 2024. It also has tentative plans to put a colony on Mars by 2117 and operates a simulation called the “Mars Science City.”
Al Neyadi has been training alongside other UAE astronauts, as well as astronauts and cosmonauts representing the ISS partners, at Johnson Space Center in Texas. Crew-6 is slated to launch in Spring 2023.
NASA plans to keep the International Space Station until 2030. However, Russia indicated that it could pull out as early as 2024. Russia built several critical modules for the International Space Station. However, leaving the ISS will not be as easy as disconnecting the modules it built, which relies on utilities provided by the American modules. Elon Musk has also indicated that he could have SpaceX help keep the ISS in orbit if needed.
NASA already has plans in the works for a replacement to the International Space Station. Axiom Space could spin off its inflatable modules to create an independent space station and essentially rent space to paying customers like NASA. Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation are also developing designs for a future space station under contracts with NASA.
SpaceX doesn’t seem to have a design in the running for NASA’s next space station. However, it has several NASA contracts of its own, including sending cargo to the ISS on the Cargo Dragon and sending crew on the Crew Dragon. It also has contracts to launch components for the Lunar Gateway, the Europa Clipper, and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.