UAE Astronaut to Spend 6-Months on ISS, Fulfills NASA/Axiom Deal

UAE Astronaut to Spend 6-Months on ISS, Fulfills NASA/Axiom Deal

Axiom Space and the United Arab Emirates announced today that a UAE astronaut will spend six months aboard the International Space Station next year. Their arrangement fulfills a deal NASA made with Axiom last year that allowed NASA’s Mark Vande Hei to fly to the ISS on a Soyuz spacecraft even though NASA’s contract with Russia’s space agency had expired. Whoever flies this mission will be the second UAE astronaut to visit the ISS, but the first on a long-duration mission.

The Axiom-UAE agreement was signed on Wednesday at the UAE Embassy in Washington, D.C. by H.E Salem Al-Marri, Director General of the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and Michael Suffredini, President and CEO of Axiom Space.

Seated L-R: H.E Salem AlMarri, Director General of the UAE Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, and Michael Suffredini, President and CEO of Axiom Space. Two of the four UAE astronauts, Nora AlMatrooshi and Mohammed AlMulla, are standing behind them in blue flight suits. Credit: Axiom Space

NASA confirmed in a statement to today that the UAE astronaut will fly on the Crew-6 mission next year. The regular crew rotation flights are roughly six months apart. Crew-4 just launched two days ago and Crew-5 is scheduled for September.

UAE’s Hazzaa AlMansoori became the first UAE astronaut in 2019 when he made a short “space tourist” visit to the ISS on a Soyuz spacecraft. The UAE selected more astronauts after that, including the first woman, Nora AlMatrooshi.

The UAE astronaut corps. Sultan AlNeyadi, Hazzaa AlMansoori, Nora AlMatrooshi, Mohammad Almulla. Credit: Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

In its statement, NASA said UAE astronauts have been training at NASA since 2019 under a separate agreement.

The astronaut corps for United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been in training with NASA at the Johnson Space Center since 2019 under a separate bilateral agreement. Their training to date has been equivalent to NASA Astronaut Candidates-level training, which includes spacewalk training, onboard systems and T-38 training. The UAE crew will continue on with training on the Crew Dragon spacecraft and start training on the international partner segments. By the Crew-6 launch date, NASA expects to have the assigned UAE crewmember trained as a fully qualified Expedition crew member.

The flight involves no exchange of funds between NASA and Axiom or NASA and the UAE.  NASA said it already has a human spaceflight agreement with MBRSC and the two agencies “envision a new cooperative, no exchange of funds agreement to document this flight opportunity.”

Like everyone who flies to the ISS, the UAE astronaut will have to approved by the International Space Station Multilateral Coordination Board.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. The UAE astronaut will be the first to embark on a long-duration ISS mission from a country that is not an ISS partner.

Axiom is building a multi-module commercial space station that will be docked to the ISS while the modules are being integrated on-orbit, and then undock to become an independent space station to succeed the ISS late in this decade. The company also is flying non-professional astronauts to the ISS. Its first mission, Axiom-1, returned to Earth just four days ago.

Mike Suffredini, Axiom’s CEO, is a former NASA ISS program manager who left the agency in 2015 to form Axiom Space with Kam Ghaffarian. Suffredini said “It is our great pleasure to sign the agreement with the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, marking the first time a commercial space company has made such a mission possible.”

The unusual arrangement between Axiom and NASA that gave the company this commercial opportunity began last year when NASA needed to find a way to launch an American astronaut on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft even though its contract with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, had expired.

NASA had been paying Russia to ferry astronauts to and from ISS for more than a decade. After the space shuttle program was terminiated in 2011, it was the only way to get there. NASA’s contract ended as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon became operational. The last Soyuz seat NASA paid for was Kate Rubins’ mission. She returned to Earth on Soyuz MS-17 almost exactly one year ago.

Since at least 2018, NASA has been trying to get Roscosmos to agree to “crew exchange” flights where Americans would continue to fly on Soyuz on a no-exchange-of-funds basis in return for Russian cosmonauts flying on U.S. commercial crew spacecraft. Through the more than 21 years of permanent human occupancy, at least one American and one Russian have been on board to operate the U.S. and Russian ISS segments.

Schematic of the International Space Station, showing which countries provided which modules and other hardware. The “U.S. segment” includes modules and other equipment from the U.S., Japan, and Europe and a robotic arm from Canada. The “Russian segment” includes modules built in Russia but one (Zarya) that is owned by the U.S. (we paid for it) and a European robotic arm.  Illustration credit: NASA

Accustomed to being paid as much as $90 million per seat, however, Roscosmos balked and time ran out. With no Americans scheduled to fly on Soyuz MS-18 last spring, NASA worried the Crew Dragon schedule was not firm enough to ensure an American would always be aboard.

In a last minute deal, the details of which remain undisclosed, Axiom arranged with Roscosmos to send NASA’s Mark Vande Hei to ISS. In return, NASA gave Axiom a seat on a future Crew Dragon mission. NASA and Axiom say it involved no exchange of funds between them.

Vande Hei launched to ISS on Soyuz MS-18 and, indeed, was the only American there for several days between the Crew-2 and Crew-3 missions. (He returned to Earth last month after setting a new U.S. continuous duration record of 355 days.)

The crew exhange agreement is still being worked despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cosmonaut Anna Kikina, the only woman in Russia’s cosmonaut corps, has been training at Johnson Space Center and NASA hopes she will be a member of Crew-5 and NASA’s Frank Rubio will be on the next Soyuz flight. The government-to-government level agreement that would allow that to happen is in the hands of Russia’s Foreign Ministry according to NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano and he remains optimistic agreement will be reached in time. He said NASA needs to know by June.

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