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First Arab to perform a spacewalk makes history, despite broken bolt

April 28, 2023

— For only the 12th time in history, an astronaut has become the first to wear his country's flag out on a spacewalk.

Displaying the red, green, white and black banner of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on his spacesuit's left shoulder, Sultan AlNeyadi on Friday (April 28) took the first steps by an Emirati into the vacuum of space. Together with his fellow International Space Station Expedition 69 crewmate Stephen Bowen of NASA, AlNeyadi completed a 7 hour and one minute extravehicular activity (EVA) that unexpectedly called for the use of a crow bar and hammer in attempts to free a broken bolt.

"Wearing the spacesuit and proudly bearing the UAE flag on my arm, I will soon be undertaking the Arab world's first spacewalk," AlNeyadi posted on Twitter before exiting the space station.

"Sultan, you're making history today," said NASA astronaut Warren "Woody" Hoburg after he helped both astronauts suit up for the EVA. "Congratulations, we're so excited for you."

"Just a quick note to congratulate the UAE for having their flag on an EMU [extravehicular mobility unit, or spacesuit] outside the International Space Station for the first time," radioed NASA astronaut Anne McClain from Mission Control in Houston.

The spacewalk, which began at 9:11 a.m. EDT (1311 GMT), was dedicated to readying the station for the addition of new solar arrays and retrieving antenna equipment to be refurbished.

NASA and UAE spacewalk at station. Click to enlarge video in new pop-up window. (NASA)

After configuring tool bags, AlNeyadi's first task outside the Quest airlock was to close the thermal hatch and become familiar moving outside the space station. Bowen, meanwhile, headed out to attach both his and AlNeyadi's safety tethers, before both astronauts made their way over to a crew and equipment translation aid, or CETA car, to configure and relocate a pair of portable foot restraints.

Bowen and AlNeyadi then moved to the the far right of the space station's backbone truss, where they ran cables and adjusted insulation blankets on a pair of mounting brackets where future solar arrays will be deployed.

As already completed at four other locations along the truss, these brackets will support two more International Space Station Roll-Out Solar Arrays (iROSAs), further augmenting the available power for the space station's on board systems. The work to install and extend the iROSA assemblies will be completed on a future spacewalk after the hardware arrives on a SpaceX supply mission later this year.

With the iROSA work complete, Bowen attached the foot restraint he retrieved earlier to the end of the Canadarm2 robotic arm to assist in his and AlNeyadi's next task: removing and bringing inside a key component of the station's primary command and data antenna assembly for its refurbishment.

After AlNeyardi carefully cut away a cover protecting the S-Band antenna's radio frequency group (RFG), Bowen mounted the foot restraint at the end of the Canadarm2. The robotic arm — being controlled by Hoburg from inside the space station, then positioned Bowen so he could release the bolts holding the RFG to the antenna assembly.

The eight structural bolts came free without problem. A central latching bolt, though, refused to release, despite attempts by Bowen to wiggle the entire RFG and AlNeyadi applying force with a crow bar. An attempt to apply more torque using a power tool broke off the bolt head, but left the RFG still secure in place. (Bowen caught the bolt fragment but a few of its washers floated away.)

Mission Control then sent AlNeyadi back to the airlock to get a tool seldom seen, let alone used, on a spacewalk.

"It's a rare day when you get to use the EVA hammer," said Bowen.

Unfortunately, not even a good pounding could knock the RFG clear. Instead, McClain directed Bowen to reinstall the RFG on the S-Band antenna assembly and AlNeyadi to reapply the insulation he had previously cut away.

The spacewalkers then cleaned up their tools and headed back inside the space station. The EVA ended at 4:12 p.m. EDT (2012 GMT) with the repressurization of the Quest airlock.

"History made!" tweeted NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, referring to AlNeyadi's achievement. "This moment is more proof that space is the ultimate unifier, bringing countries together to learn and discover aboard the International Space Station."

"We are proud and honored to be making history alongside our friends and colleagues at NASA," Salem AlMarri, Director General of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, wrote on Twitter.

Although 11 country flags have been previously worn on EVA, they do not represent all of the nations to have citizen spacewalkers. Claude Nicollier of the European Space Agency (ESA) became the first Swiss astronaut to work in the vacuum of space in 1999. Although he wore a Swiss flag on his launch and entry spacesuit for the same mission, he wore an American flag when outside the space shuttle Discovery. (Nicollier was the first ESA astronaut to perform an EVA from the U.S. space shuttle; all previous international spacewalkers did so from Russia's Mir space station.)

The 11 prior flags also include two for Russia, one for the former Soviet Union and one for the present day Russian Federation. The world's first spacewalk was achieved by a Soviet cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov in March 1965, but it was not until the first American spacewalk by Ed White three months later that a country flag was worn on an EVA spacesuit. Since then, the other flags worn on spacewalks have represented France, Germany, Canada, Japan, Sweden, China, Italy and the United Kingdom.

AlNeyadi is the first Arab and Emirati to perform an EVA, though he is the third Arabian and second astronaut from the UAE to fly into space. He was the 253rd person worldwide to conduct a spacewalk.

"It has been a great honor to be a participant in Sultan's very first first spacewalk," said Bowen at the conclusion of the EVA.

"Thank you Stephen. It is a good moment for the UAE," replied AlNeyadi. "It may be the first in the Arab world but definitely won't be the last. We have astronauts undergoing training now for future missions to the International Space Station, to the lunar surface and to Mars."

For Bowen, Friday's spacewalk was his eighth career EVA, though there was a 12 year break since his last outing. He has now logged 54 hours and 19 minutes working in the vacuum of space, raising his rank to 10th on the list of worldwide spacewalkers.

The EVA was the 261st since 1998 in support of assembly and maintenance of the International Space Station.


With the United Arab Emirates flag visible on his suit's left shoulder, Expedition 69 flight engineer Sultan AlNeyadi is seen performing a spacewalk — the first conducted by an Arab astronaut — on Friday, April 28, 2023, outside the International Space Station. (NASA)

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is now the 12th country to have its flag adorn the shoulder of an astronaut's spacesuit on a spacewalk. (NASA/Roscosmos/CMSA/collectSPACE)

NASA astronaut Stephen Bowen (at top) and UAE astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi work to configure a mount for a new solar array during an International Space Station spacewalk, April 28, 2023. (NASA)

UAE astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi uses a rarely-seen tool, the EVA hammer, to try to knock loose a broken bolt during an International Space Station spacewalk on Friday, April 28, 2023. (NASA TV)

NASA astronaut Stephen Bowen works on an antenna assembly outside the International Space Station on April 28, 2023. (NASA)

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