Egyptian engineer Sara Sabry stands stock still as her spacesuit is adjusted, running through an extensive checklist of her mission to learn how to collect a lunar surface sample.
But she isn't on the moon or even the International Space Station; she is at a repurposed nuclear bunker in Poland.
Sabry is Egypt's first female analog astronaut.
Analog missions are essentially simulations conducted on Earth at locations that have physical similarities to the extreme conditions that space travellers will have to contend with on their journeys off-planet.
They are a kind of rehearsal that allows space agencies to test out crisis management scenarios, as well as give new kinds of equipment a dry run before using them on space missions.
Earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the American University in Cairo, where she also finished a pre-med minor, Sabry went on to achieve a master’s in biomedical engineering from the Politecnico di Milano in 2020. Her master's was mainly focused on the use of robotics and artificial intelligence in surgery.
This year, Sabry will start a PhD programme in aerospace sciences in the US where her focus will be on space suit design.
“My transition from the biomedical and mechanical engineering fields into aerospace was actually really smooth,” Sabry, 28, tells The National. “What many people don’t know is that a background in medicine and engineering allows one to work in a variety of fields. And when you consider how much the aerospace industry has grown during the past decades, a wide range of expertise now has a role to play in it.”
In 2021, Sabry embarked on her first analog mission, which she attended with five other people at a nuclear bunker just outside the small Polish city Pila. Sabry's group was inside the facility for three weeks, she tells The National from her home in Berlin.
To simulate a mission to the moon accurately, the group had no access to sunlight, food that isn’t freeze-dried or caffeine. They also had minimal contact with the outside world.
“The reason we were kept out of the sun is because when astronauts go on a moon mission, one of their top priorities is to protect themselves from radiation,” Sabry says. “During the simulation, we got to do everything that an astronaut would do, so we put on spacesuits and conducted moon walks to collect surface samples and so on.”
The bunker where the mission took place was designed by experienced space architects who made it in the image of housing units off-planet, explains Sabry. The group of astronauts were given a strict schedule to follow, including an hour of vigorous exercise every day. This is mandatory for every astronaut working off-planet.
“When an astronaut is exposed to either low gravity or micro-gravity, which often happens when they are in transit between Earth and their destination off-planet, they lose bone density because of the decreased load on their bones,” Sabry explains. “Muscle atrophy is also a big issue, so to mitigate this, astronauts on the International Space Station have to do two hours of exercise every day.”
While they might not have the lustre of off-planet space missions, analog voyages are an invaluable part of the aerospace industry, explains Sabry. She adds that taking part in the mission and the first-hand experience she gained would be invaluable in her plans to design spacesuits and in any aerospace research missions that she joins.
“When you understand the human body’s needs in that kind of environment, it changes the way you approach the whole thing,” she adds.
Sabry remains hopeful that she will one day go to space, but says that existing laws that mandate that people can take part in off-planet missions only organised by agencies in their home nations have thus far been a hindrance.
Though the Egyptian Space Agency is nascent and its activities limited, Sabry says it is progressing at a decent rate. She says she is excited about the opportunities it plans to afford Egyptians who want to enter the aerospace field.
The aerospace industry is one of the world’s more male-dominated industries, with only 11.2 per cent of the US's aerospace engineers women. Furthermore, Arab involvement in the sector is also markedly low, which has made Sabry’s journey not without its obstacles.
Despite those challenges, Sabry also recognises that her having been fortunate enough to receive a top-notch education gave her leg-up with achieving her success. Now she wants to open up the industry to other people, even if they haven't been as fortunate.
Her Deep Space Initiative, a non-profit company that works on providing more opportunities in aerospace for applicants anywhere in the world, gives participants the chance to conduct research on space-related topics. Those involved can also present their ideas to some of aerospace’s biggest names, many of whom Sabry met and formed relationships with over her career.
“We are essentially trying to make space research more accessible to everyone and to provide more equitable opportunity in the field,” says Sabry. “Those who join the programme will have the opportunity of studying fields that are only really available in the West and be exposed to knowledge they might have never had access to.”
As part of the community outreach part of her project, Sabry will collaborate with the Egyptian Space Agency on a variety of activities in the near future.
“My efforts are focused on erasing the nationality-based differences in the aerospace field, which are ridiculous in my opinion,” says Sabry. “It’s amazing that we continue to bar people from entering fields that could benefit from their involvement because of some lines on a map drawn by some old men centuries ago.”