Article: Non-US/Russia People in Space

The (Non-Superpower) Space Race

Dec. 7, 2021

by Babak Babali

Although most people who have been in space are either US astronauts or Russian cosmonauts, there are space travellers from other nations too.

We humans have always taken delight in visiting new places.

This is probably why humans spread across the world from the African Savannah—to see, to discover, and to explore new places and new possibilities.

Once the earth had been more or less fully explored by the beginning of the 20th century, we turned our attention to the outer space. This dream came true in 1961 with the famous flight of the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.

After a dozen other expeditions by the US and the Soviet Union—and some rivalry between the two superpowers to take the lead in space exploration—things reached a new climax when the American astronaut, Neil Armstrong, set foot on the moon.

However, since the launch of the Soviet low-orbit space station Mir and then the international space station (ISS) (1998 and 1986, respectively), citizens of countries other than the US or the USSR have had the chance to travel to space.

Below is a list of space travellers from countries you may not normally associate with cosmic expeditions.

Rakesh Sharma (India)

This former Indian military pilot flew to space in 1984 as an invitee member of the Soviet Union's Intercosmos scheme. He was—and still is—the only Indian who has traveled to the outer space.

Born in Punjab in 1949, Sharma attended a military college in Hyderabad and began his career as an Indian Air Force pilot in 1970. He is still held in high regard in India, and his spacesuit is on display at the Nehru planetarium.

Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez (Cuba)

A stamp printed in the Cuba shows Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez, 1st Soviet-Cuban Joint Space Flight. Credit: Shutterstock / Boris15

Four years before Sharma, another non-Soviet cosmonaut had flown to space in 1980 aboard a Soyuz rocket thanks to the Intercosmos program. A Cuban military officer named Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez, was chosen as a crew member of Soyuz 38, perhaps due to close political ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Some twenty years before his space flight, Mendez, who was a young officer of the Cuban revolutionary armed forces, had learned aerial combat with Russian MiG-15 fighters in the Soviet Union.

He was, at the time of his flight, the first Latin American and the first person of African origin to travel to space.

Sultan bin Salman Al Saud (Saudi Arabia)

Saudi Arabia. 3D rendering. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. Credit: Shutterstock / Anton Balazh

As a prince and a member of the House of Saud, Al Saud, joined the Royal Saudi Air Force with the rank of Colonel in the 1980s. Unlike some other names in this list, Al Saud was a formal astronaut acting as a payload specialist aboard the American space Shuttle, Discovery, in one of its preplanned flights in 1985.

Al Saud is considered to be the first Arab, the first Muslim, and the first member of a royal family to fly to space.

Toyohiro Akiyama (Japan)


Stamp printed in the USSR devoted to Flight of the Japanese-Soviet space crew consisting of Toyohiro Akiyama and Afanasiev on the Soyuz-TM-11. Credit: Shutterstock / Vector FX

The first Japanese to ever go to space was not involved in aerospace in any particular way before traveling to the Mir space station and spending a week there in 1990.

Akiyama was—at the time—a well-known journalist with the reputation of working for the Tokyo-based television channel, TBS, and the BBC World Service.

The expenses of Akiyama's journey to the Soviets' Mir station were fully paid by the TBS in celebration of the channel's 40th anniversary.

Anousheh Ansari (Iran/US)

Iranian space tourist Anousheh Ansari at United Nations Headquarters. Credit: Shutterstock / lev radin

Ansari is perhaps the most controversial name in this list; although she flew to the international space station with a US flag sewn to her spacesuit, she was an Iranian by birth and did not leave her country of birth before the age of 18.

What is more, in the absence of a government or a corporation with deep pockets to sponsor her flight, Ansari paid for her own journey. Even so, she only got a chance to join the crew one month before the launch day, replacing a medically-disqualified prime crew member.

She flew to the ISS aboard a Soyuz rocket.

Ansari had previously made her fortune as an entrepreneur in the telecoms sector in the US.

Hazza Al Mansouri (UAE)

Astronaut Hazza Ali Al Mansouri from United Arab Emirates. Credit: Shutterstock / Vera Larina

The most recent space traveler in this list is an Emirati fighter pilot.

Al Mansouri went to the ISS aboard a Soyuz rocket in 2019 and became the UAE's first astronaut.

He trained as a fighter pilot in Arizona, US, though his training as an astronaut took place in Star City, Russia, thanks to a cooperation program between the UAE's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) and Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Al Mansouri's flight to space made a lot of headlines in the Middle East and the world, marking as it did the UAE's status as rapidly-developing country in the region.