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Sultan Al Neyadi's 6 months in space hailed as a milestone for United Arab Emirates

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Early this morning, four astronauts splashed down off the coast of Florida after six months on the International Space Station. One of them is from the United Arab Emirates. Only a few people from the Middle East have gone to space, and his mission is being hailed as a milestone for the region. NPR's Aya Batrawy joins us now from Dubai. Hi, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hey, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Hey. So tell us about this astronaut.

BATRAWY: So Sultan Al Neyadi - he is an engineer with a Ph.D. who spent 20 years in the military. And at 42, he's also a father of six. So I can only imagine what the mother of his kids felt like all that time with those kids on her own.

ESTRIN: Oh, man.

BATRAWY: But this is a tribal, tight-knit society, and they really rally around each other and their own. And his mission, it's being seen as a historic moment of pride for this country and really for the region. And you can sense the excitement on social media, online, in the local press and the UAE's leadership. I mean, they have really thrown their support behind him, ensuring he gets the publicity and the kind of attention they feel is worthy of this mission. And although he is the second astronaut from the UAE to go to space, it's by far the longest mission by an Arab astronaut, decades after a Saudi prince made history as the first person from this region to go to space. Let's listen to a clip from Sultan Al Neyadi just a few days ago before leaving the ISS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULTAN AL NEYADI: It was really amazing, especially for my region. I come from a place where the spaceflights - human spaceflights - were stopped for more than 30 years, and I felt that I'm responsible, obligated to show what's happening with the station. I think it's a small boost towards spreading the enthusiasm in our region.

ESTRIN: Yeah, very cool. So he spent six months in space. What are some of the moments that stood out from his time?

BATRAWY: Well, look, he's had a really very savvy social media presence. He's been posting all these very cool pictures from the ISS, and he's been posting and sharing all his captions in English and in Arabic, making it very accessible to people from this region. He was also up there during Ramadan and shared a photo of the crescent moon, which marks the start of the Muslim holy month. So this, I think, really helped people connect with his, you know, mission and see themselves in his images.

But there's also other highlights, like he took part in something like 200 experiments while he was up there, and he donned that big puffy white astronaut suit and made a spacewalk outside the ISS. So that also marks the first time for an Arab astronaut to do that. But another major highlight was he was visited aboard the ISS in May for a few days by two Saudi astronauts, including the first-ever Arab woman astronaut to go to space.

ESTRIN: Yeah. I'm looking at a picture now that he took of Jerusalem, where I am, and it's just ethereal. I've never seen Jerusalem like that. It's beautiful. So, Aya, what is the UAE up to? It's such a small country. What's - what is it trying to do in space?

BATRAWY: So if we take a step back, this part of the world - North Africa, the Middle East, the Near East - for hundreds of years until around the 13th century, they were pioneers in the fields of medicine and science in what's known as the Islamic Golden Age. And that is a point of pride included in local textbooks and children's books. But, yeah, this is a very young and small country. It's 50 - it's just around 50 years old, with a local population of just over a million people. But they've been very strategic about how they deploy their oil and gas wealth, including by building a space program, by partnering with countries that have very advanced space programs, like the U.S., Russia, South Korea and Japan.

They currently have a satellite orbiting Mars and examining its atmosphere, and they plan to send another rover to the moon after the first try failed. But I think the message here is clear. If you can dream it, we're game to try. And the UAE's leaders insist nothing is impossible.

ESTRIN: All right. That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Thank you, Aya.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF OATMELLO'S "FROST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.