The right stuff: What it takes to be an astronaut
UAE astronaut Maj. Hazza Al-Mansoori has become the first Arab to board and carry out research on the International Space Station (ISS). He is already a hero, the pride of the Emirati nation and, more broadly, the Arab world.
The technical aspects of the space journey, both for the rocket and the astronauts, have often been explained. Suffice to say that while a spacecraft can reach the ISS, which is only 400km above the Earth’s surface, in under 10 minutes, it takes six hours for the craft to dock (bear in mind that the ISS orbits Earth at a speed of about 28,000kph).
Indeed, the approach and docking procedure with the ISS are complex and sometimes have to be attempted more than once. Thankfully, the Soyuz flight that carried Al-Mansoori, the UAE’s first astronaut, and his Russian and US colleagues was flawless.
However, the psychological and mental strength required in such endeavors has rarely been explained or appreciated.
I was reminded of this while watching the film “Ad Astra” a day after Al-Mansoori entered space. I lost count of the number of times the astronaut, played by Brad Pitt, was asked to undertake a psychological test before and during various space flights.
The astronaut’s mental strength was emphasized from the film’s start. Early on, Pitt is asked whether it is true that his heartbeat has never exceeded 80 beats per minute. There were also instances where his exceptional psychological strengths — the ability to “compartmentalize” issues, stay focused, remain calm and effective in difficult situations and cope with extraordinary stresses — were on display.
Another recent film highlighting astronauts' psychological and mental strengths was the drama “First Man,” which told Neil Armstrong’s story from his time as a NASA pilot to his successful lunar landing and safe return to Earth.
From the videos I have seen of him, Al-Mansoori is clearly a strong, modest and amiable person possessing the traits required for space flight.
The film reveals Armstrong’s mental strength and his almost superhuman calmness and composure in situations that others would have been unable to handle, including docking with a spacecraft and landing on the Moon with barely 30 seconds of fuel remaining. These mental traits were rare and helped greatly in the success of the Apollo program, but at the same time had negative effects in his relationship with his wife and children, in particular, a theme that is repeated in “Ad Astra.”
Before they go through rigorous technical, physical and psychological training programs, astronaut candidates are selected according to various criteria. The European Space Agency’s “Astronaut Training Requirements” page says: “Major aspects taken into consideration are psychological suitability, scientific and technical competence, and fulfilment of medical criteria.” Under “Psychological Requirements,” it includes “empathy with fellow workers, a low level of aggressiveness and emotional stability.”
I have yet to meet Al-Mansoori. I hope I get the chance in the near future since he will undoubtedly visit schools, universities, and other venues to describe his experience in space, what he has learned, and the lessons and advice he would like to pass on to the next generation of Emirati and Arab astronauts, space enthusiasts, scientists, engineers and more.
However, from the videos I have seen of him, he is clearly a strong, modest and amiable person possessing the traits required for space flight. Only rare individuals have the technical competence, physical fitness and psychological strength required for the ISS mission and its scientific, technological and medical experiments.
I attended a live launch broadcast with dozens of Emirati high school students and was delighted to see not only the joy they felt at this historical moment but also their fascination with space, science and technology. Most importantly, they all felt that space — not just the ISS, but Mars and beyond — is theirs to reach. Indeed, perhaps I can say, the sky is not the limit.
Kudos to Al-Mansoori and the Emirati officials and team who produced this turning point. On to more achievements.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum