UAE in space: will the country soon have its first female astronaut?

Two Emiratis will join the nation’s astronaut corps and five women are in the running

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It is only a week since the UAE’s Hope probe first orbited Mars, sparking jubilant scenes across the nation.

Now the country’s thriving space sector has another milestone in its sights as it edges closer to announcing its next two astronauts.

Five of the 14 candidates still in the running are women, raising hopes of another landmark moment to come.

An impressive 4,305 Emiratis applied to join the UAE’s space fleet, with 1,400 women among them – about 250 more than during the country’s previous astronaut recruitment drive.

Two UAE citizens will be selected to follow in the footsteps of the first Emirati man in space, Maj Hazza Al Mansouri, and reserve astronaut Dr Sultan Al Neyadi.

The UAE puts great emphasis on gender equality. Emirati women lead the way in various fields, including the mission to Mars, and the country was number one in a global ranking this year for women in parliament.

The space sector is known to be male-dominated in many parts of the world, but at Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, in Dubai, 42 per cent of the staff are women.

Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology, led the mission to Mars as chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency.

Salem Al Marri, chief of the nation's astronaut programme, told The National previously that increasing the number of female astronaut applicants was a "great step forward".

"We would definitely like to see a woman get selected. That's something we would actually encourage," he said last year when the number of applicants was announced.

“What I’ve initially seen from the women that have applied, we’ve got some really good candidates. The quality that we have this time around is really high.

“At the same time, our objective is clear that we will select the best, brightest and most suitable.”

More women candidates this time

In the last round of applications in 2018, only a fifth of of the final 39 candidates were women.

Of the 39, 18 were shortlisted and the number was reduced to nine – both times, the number of women was not disclosed.

This time, however, Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre has been more transparent about the number of women candidates in the running.

Equality in space

Discrimination against women was rife at Nasa in the 1960s when the space exploration era began.

Although the gender gap has narrowed somewhat, the space sector continues to be male dominated in some parts of the world.

Simonetta Di Pippo, director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, said that despite major strides towards equality of the sexes, 2.8 million girls live in countries that “are failing to empower them”.

“Data from the global gender gap report, collected by the World Economic Forum, suggests that it will take almost 100 years to close the overall gender gap and 57 years to achieve parity in economic participation and opportunity. The space sector is unfortunately no exception when it comes to disparities between men and women,” she said during a space week held by Dubai Expo 2020 last year.

“For me, as a woman, as a space professional, but even more as a human, it is very disappointing to see that in 2020, we are still yet to make the most of what women and girls can offer in Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths], in space and overall to society.”

As of 2020, more than 550 astronauts had flown to space. Only 65 of them were women.

But in the Emirates and elsewhere, work is being done to change this trend.

How will candidates be chosen?

Mr Al Marri said the “most suitable” candidate would be selected, regardless of gender.

Two female Nasa astronauts, Dr Jessica Meir and Anne McClain, visited Dubai recently to help with the selection process.

Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Al Neyadi, who are currently training at Nasa’s facility in Houston, also took part.

Even if a woman is selected, there is no guarantee that she will fly to space. The astronaut who qualifies for the mission profile will be chosen to launch.

MBRSC said the two new candidates would be announced by the end of January, but there was a delay as the focus shifted to the UAE's Mars mission.

Female firsts in the space sector

• In 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space. She was selected from more than 400 applicants;

• The former Soviet Union sent the second woman to space in 1982. Svetlana Savitskaya was also the first woman to perform a spacewalk;

• US space agency Nasa sent Sally Ride into space in 1983. She was the first American female astronaut;

• The International Space Station had its first female commander in 2007, when Nasa astronaut Peggy Whitson took charge;

• The first all-female spacewalk took place in 2019. It was by Nasa astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch;

• Ms Koch also set the record for the single longest spaceflight by a woman, after spending 328 days on the ISS;

• In 1992, Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman to go to space;

UAE’s Hope probe reaches Mars – in pictures