More women needed to join UAE space sector, experts say

Young girls need inspiring role models to motivate them following Hazza Al Mansouri's successful mission

Sheikha Al Falasi from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: ANAM RIZVI
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More women should be encouraged to become astronauts following the UAE’s phenomenal success in the space sector last year, experts have said.

Hazza Al Mansouri became the country’s first astronaut after his eight day mission to the International Space Station in September.

Now, scientists and engineers in the Emirates have stressed the importance of capitalising on the achievement by inspiring more women to join the industry.

Already, 77 per cent of computer science students in the UAE are women while 44.5 per cent of engineering undergraduates in the country are also female.

“The next step is to send an Emirati woman to space,” said Shaikha Al Falasi, 26, a research engineer at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).

“We need to take this momentum and motivate young people. Taking one astronaut into space was not the effort of one person but an eclectic effort.

“When I was an engineer, I was looking for other women who could help me. I was looking for a voice to lift me up.”

Former fighter pilot Maj Al Mansouri became the third Arab in space and the first in more than 20 years following his mission to ISS.

He orbited Earth 128 times during his stay on the station, in a journey of almost five million kilometres.

Since then, Salem Al Marri, director of the Space Systems Development Department at the MBRSC, has said the UAE’s next astronaut could be female.

Already, 40 per cent of staff at the MBRSC are women. Last year, a third of applicants to Khalifa University’s master’s space programme were female.

“We will choose the most talented and suitable candidate regardless of gender,” Mr Ali Marri told a Dubai press conference in December.

Speaking to The National this week, Ms Al Falasi told how she had wanted to become an engineer as a young girl.

She went on to study civil engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi where she was the only woman in a class of 19 students during a semester in the United States.

"I wanted to break the stereotype,” she said. “Many people told me I could not be an engineer but I believed in myself and that was the best incentive.

United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri gestures before his final preflight practical examination in a mock-up of a Soyuz space craft at Russian Space Training Center in Star City, outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka‎, U.S. astronaut Jessica Meir and United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri are the next crew scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian made Soyuz MS-15 space craft going to be launched on September 25.  Hand gesture in UAE means Win, Victory, Love.  (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

“Why can’t women work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

“The spaces sector is new and we are a young country. We have to let women know their voices need to be heard and we need them in these sectors.”

Ahlam Al Qasim, a PhD student in Space and Climate Physics at the University College London, said she hoped to become the first female Emirati astronaut.

She was finishing her first year at university studying arts when she asked herself what was stopping her from pursuing her dream of reaching space.

Deciding to switch to physics, she told The National she had never looked back.

“My greatest dream ever since I was a child was to become an astronaut," said Ms Al Qasim.

"Giving younger Arab girls role models to look up to in STEM is very important, and highlighting Arab females in STEM and making sure their work is not being overlooked is the first step to doing that.

“My family and friends have been very supportive of my journey but my dream of being an astronaut had different reactions from the people around me because it seemed impossible.

“Some of my friends laughed and thought I was delusional. But once they saw how serious I was, they encouraged me.

“Increasingly, I see more and more support in the UAE - more than I saw in the STEM communities in western countries.

“I hope to see more Arab women contribute to the global science community and leave their mark.”