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 ascend for an extended months-long stay.
The Falcon rocket blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center just after midnight, lighting up the night sky as it headed up 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 into space – blasted off on his six-month mission.
Half a world away in Dubai and elsewhere in the UAE, schools and offices are broadcasting the launch live.
Also riding the Dragon capsule bound for 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher and spaceflight novice, and Andrei Fedyaev, a space rookie who has retired from the Russian Air Force.
“Welcome to orbit,” SpaceX Launch Control radioed, noting that the liftoff occurred four years to the day after the capsule’s first orbital test flight. “If you enjoyed the tour, don’t forget to give us five stars.”
The first attempt to launch them was aborted on Monday at the last minute due to a clogged filter in the engine’s ignition system.
“It may have taken twice, but it was worth the trip,” Bowen said.
NASA space mission manager Kathy Lueders said Thursday’s launch enhanced a night sky that already shows a combination of Venus and Jupiter. The two planets have appeared side by side all week, and appear to be growing ever closer.
“We added a bright new star to the night sky tonight,” she told reporters.
The space station newcomers will replace an American-Russian-Japanese crew that has been up there since October. The other residents of the station are two Russians and an American whose six-month stay was doubled until September, after their Soyuz capsule ejected. A replacement Soyuz arrived last weekend.
Al-Neyadi, a communications engineer, thanked everyone in Arabic and then English as they reached the runway. “The launch was incredible. Unbelievable,” he said.
He served as backup to the first Emirati astronaut, Hazzaa al-Mansoori, who drove 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 plane.
The UAE’s Minister of Public Education and Advanced Technology, Sarah al-Amiri, said the long mission “gives us a new place of 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 an impact,” said the director general of the UAE Space Center in Dubai, Salem al-Marri.
The Emirates already have a spacecraft orbiting Mars, and a mini-rover is taking a trip to the moon on a Japanese lander. Two new UAE astronauts train with NASA’s latest astronaut selection in Houston.
Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first Arab in space, launching aboard the space 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 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 is also thirsty to learn more.”
He records many dates to share with his crewmates, especially during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that begins this month. As for observing Ramadan in orbit, he said that fasting is not obligatory as it could make him weak and jeopardize his mission.
Bowen, the crew’s manager, said the four have played well as a team despite differences between their countries. Even with the tension surrounding the war in Ukraine, the US and Russia have continued to cooperate on the space station and swap seats on trips there.
“It’s just awesome to have the opportunity to fly with these guys,” Bowen said.
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