Saudi female aerospace engineer has sights set on the stars

Mishaal Ashemimry speaks exclusively to 'The National' about her career to date

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Saudi Arabia’s first aerospace engineer, Mishaal Ashemimry, made her career decision early on.

"When I was six years old, I decided I wanted to go into space. My journey to become an aerospace engineer began when my mum took me to a desert in Unayzah during a trip to Saudi Arabia from the United States where I was born and raised," Ashemimry told The National.

When little Mishaal looked up she saw part of the Milky Way and was overwhelmed with the wonder.

"When I first looked at the stars, it was love at first sight," Mishaal says.

That initial spark fuelled her lifelong passion in aerospace, which then led to advanced technology and more.

Luckily, she had a supportive family. Her mother encouraged her scientific interests as a young child in the US, along with her father, a retired chief pilot for Saudia airlines.

She struggled to get answers to all of her questions, so she decided she "would go up there" one day to find them for herself.

"My mother was very supportive, but of course when my experiments got out of control, like the electricity going off, she'd worry about my safety, while still encouraging the enquiring side to flourish," she says.

When she was only six and a half, Mishaal flew her first plane with her father.

"He told me what to do and I remember I did the take-off," she says. "I have video of it when this happened in 1990, when my dad took my sister and I on a plane in Miami.

"A few months ago I took another video of us flying, except this time I was in charge of the plane."

"When I first looked at the stars, it was love at first sight."
Mishaal Ashemimry

The video shows Mishaal "walking" her father through the first landing, then he asks her to do the second landing.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, she was sent to Saudi Arabia when she was in Grade 5, to learn Arabic and get in touch with her roots.

"So I studied there until Grade 9," she says.

During her school years in the US, Mishaal joined every programme related to maths and sciences.

"In high school, I participated in two robotics programmes, First Robotics Competition and BattleBots, which used to air on Comedy Central."

By the time she was ready for university, she "knew and it was as clear as day" that she would study aerospace engineering.

"I need to make rockets to go to space," Mishaal says. "That's all I knew and it didn't change as I got older. For some, the passion subsides or changes but I had a calling."

She studied aerospace engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida, she and graduated with two majors – aerospace engineering and applied mathematics.

Mishaal also obtained her master's in science in aerospace engineering from the same institute.

"The research in my master's programme was conducted for and funded by Nasa Marshall Space Flight Centre," she says.

Her expertise and areas of interests are experimental and analytical aerodynamics, rocket design and nuclear thermal propulsion.

Mishaal recently joined social media and the interest in her content has driven her to engage more with young people from the GCC.

"The objective wasn't fame. It was to inspire," she says. "If five people listen to it and even one is inspired and thinks, 'if she can do it so can I', or I can spark an interest in science or engineering or space, that's what I want."

And it picked up significantly. A respondent on Clubhouse told her that he started studying chemical engineering after a conversation with her on Snapchat. She thought that was very important.

"If I inspired people then I will leave this imprint as my legacy for people to perpetuate curiosity or dream – and that is what is important, that is the legacy I want to leave behind."

Mishaal says part of that legacy comes from daring to dream, then designing a pathway to get there at a time when there were limited opportunities for women.

At the age of 26, she became the first Saudi female aerospace engineer, and launched her own rocket company, Mishaal Aerospace. She designed, developed and tested her own line of rockets.

"To make it simple, we make rockets and launch them, our clients provide their payload [satellite] and we take them to space as a launch vehicle provider."

She was named "Inspirational Woman of the Year 2015" by Arab Women Awards, and won plaudits from others around the world.

In 2018, Mishaal was honoured for scientific achievement by Saudi King Salman.

"That was one of the most memorable moments, meeting the King and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman."

In 2019, Mishaal started teaching junior and senior level courses in flight dynamics and aircraft design at the University of Miami. She is also a consultant at one of the world's biggest defence and space companies.

So what’s next?

“I still have milestones,” Mishaal says. “I have so much more to accomplish. My dream was to go into space and I have yet to do that."

She hopes to be one of the first Arab female astronauts. After all, she has a promise to keep.

"Whenever I reach that milestone, as an astronaut, or whenever I am in space, it will be for that six year old who dared to dream big."

Updated: July 04, 2021, 4:29 AM