The ISS is becoming more and more international
The ISS is becoming more and more international

The ISS is becoming more and more international

Thanks to the Axiom company, the International Space Station should receive in the next two years astronauts from countries of the Gulf, Asia Minor, Eastern Europe and Maghreb. A foretaste of private stations?

On March 2, a SpaceX Falcon 9 dispatched to the International Space Station two astronauts from the United States, Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg, Russian cosmonaut Andrei Fedyev, and Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi. The latter is the first representative of the Arab world to settle for a six month stay aboard the orbital complex, as part of the UAE Mission 2. A telecommunications engineer, he was working on social networks for the UAE armed forces when he was selected in September 2018 by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC), among 4 022 astronaut candidates. The following April, he had been designated to be the understudy of Hazza al-Mansouri who, between 25 September and 3 October 2019, led the highly publicized UAE Mission 1. Then, when negotiations began with Russia for a long-term stay of an Emirati astronaut on board the ISS, the choice naturally fell on Sultan Al Neyadi. But it was finally on a Nasa crew rotation flight that he was officially assigned in July 2022, with the MBRSC purchasing his seat through the Texas-based company Axiom Space. Meanwhile, in the fall of 2020, the man who has been dubbed " the Sultan of Space " had started his training at the Johnson Center in Houston, Texas.


Two Saudis on Axiom 2

At 41 years old, Sultan Al Neyadi has become the fourth representative of the Arab world in history to fly in space, pending the two Saudi passengers on the private Axiom 2 mission, currently scheduled for mid-May : Ali Alqarni (31 year-old Saudi Air Force fighter pilot) and Rayyanah Barnawi (33 year-old research laboratory technician). They will fly aboard the Crew Dragon, along with American astronaut Peggy Whitson (63 years old, 4th flight) and American businessman John Shoffner (67 years old), for a 12 day orbital stay, during which they will conduct 14 biomedical and physical experiments. Ali Alqarni is a captain with a degree in aerospace sciences from the King Faisal Air Academy, has been a fighter pilot for 12 years and has accumulated 2,387 hours of flight time. Rayyanah Barnawi, the future first Arab woman in space, holds a master's degree in biomedical sciences from King Faisal University in Riyadh and a bachelor's degree in biomedical sciences from Otago University in New Zealand. For the past 9 years, she has been a technician in a breast cancer and cancer stem cell research laboratory at King Faiçal Specialized Hospital in Riyadh.


Turkey's to watch ?

Axiom has not yet revealed the passengers or clearly set a timetable for its next flight, Axiom 3, but it is expected to embark the first Turk in space, around the time of the Republic of Turkey's centennial next October. An agreement in this sense was signed last September 19 in Paris, during the 75th;International Astronautical Congress, between the president of Axiom, Michael Suffredini, and the director of the Tübitak Uzay Space Technology Research Institute, Mesut Gökten, in the presence of the Deputy Minister of Industry and Technology, Mehmet Fatih Kacir, and the president of the Turkish Space Agency (TUA), Serdar Hüseyin Yildirim. It provides for the training and sending to the ISS of the Turkish astronaut, but the details of the selection process have obviously not been specified so far.


A more expensive ticket than a national contribution

On November 22, at the opening of the European Space Agency Ministerial Council, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó caused a stir, announcing that his country would fly its third representative (after fighter pilot Bertalan Farkas, in 1980, and tourist Charles Simonyi, in 2007 and 2009). The Hunor (Hungarian to Orbit) program will take place, not in 2024 with the Russians as announced two years ago, but in 2025-2026 with Axiom, and for an amount of 100 M$ : it is more than all the contribution of Hungary during three years to the ESA programs (87 M€ on the period 2023-2026) ! Eight candidates have been selected for a mission that should last one month. It will be an opportunity to conduct 8 scientific experiments and test 12 national equipment, but also to offer research and experimentation slots to ESA.


Privileged partnership with Italy

Note that in January 2022 Axiom hired Italian military pilot Walter Villadei as the first international professional astronaut. Aged 48, he completed his cosmonaut training at Star City near Moscow between 2008 and 2015, was appointed in September 2021 as a crew member of the first research mission scheduled on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (still pending), and has joined the backup crew of the Axiom 2 mission. Remember that Axiom has other ambitions than organizing private stays aboard the ISS, and is preparing its own station, the first two elements of which are being manufactured at Thales Alenia Space, in Turin, Italy.


Only foreigners on Russian spacecraft

From next October (a little less than two years after the entirely private flight of the Soyuz MS 20, with Japanese Yūsaku Maezawa and Yozo Hirano), Roscosmos planned to ship foreign passengers to the ISS again, apart from the seat exchanges negotiated with Nasa. In this case, a Belarusian woman should have joined the crew of Soyuz MS 24, following the promise made last April by Vladimir Putin to his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko. But the problems of leakage of the Soyuz MS 22 having obliged the empty sending of the Soyuz MS 23, on February 24 the first Belarusian of the history will certainly have to wait six months before succeeding Piotr Klimouk, Vladimir Kovalenok and Oleg Novitski.

Then should fly the first Tunisian and the first Mongolian, following agreements made in August 2021 with Tunisia (before the invasion of Ukraine), and in June 2022 with Mongolia (in the middle of a war). Initially scheduled for March 2024, the Tunisian mission (organized as a public-private project) should last 10 days, and focus on physics and medicine. It currently mobilizes eight female officers, airplane or helicopter pilots and aeronautical engineers graduated from the aviation school of Borj El-Amri. On the other hand, no information has yet been released about the Mongolian mission that would succeed that of Jugderdemidiin Gurracha, in 1981. And even less on a recent invitation made by Russia to Angola, after the launch of the telecommunications satellite AngoSat 2 using a Russian Proton launcher, in October 2022 ... Finally, if they are not expected to fly on a Soyuz, let's remember that Indians also train regularly at Star City, as part of the preparations for the Gaganyaan program.


Research for all ?

With this proliferation of new kinds of astronauts, both private passengers on the ISS and official representatives of their countries, we asked Laura André-Boyet, an instructor at the European Astronaut Center (EAC) and founder of PASI (Professional Association of Space Instructors) for her opinion. She answers: "These are countries that are not among the initial partners of the International Space Station, but that are increasingly interested in the potential of a presence in space. By sending one or more of their nationals for a reasonable cost and perhaps ultimately less than that of a permanent participation in the ISS program, they offer themselves on the one hand a nice media showcase in their region, create in their country a craze for research and technology, and even acquire a know-how that they were deprived of until now. In the very long term, this can nourish great ambitions for some (notably the United Arab Emirates), at a time when we are beginning to talk about the exploitation of extra-terrestrial resources. For the time being, this constitutes in any case for a company like Axiom which already has a foot in the ISS, or for others who are working on private space stations, perspectives perhaps more durable than the sale of stays around the Earth to idle billionaires : a democratized access to orbital research, as encouraged in particular by the Office for Space Affairs of the United Nations... "

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