Investing in people made space achievements possible, says Emirati astronaut

Arab world’s first female astronaut speaks to ‘The National’ about the country’s progress in space

Nora Al Matrooshi, the first Arab female astronaut, speaks about her experience of being selected. Photo: Expo 2020 Dubai

The UAE’s investment in human capital is what made the nation’s impressive list of space achievements possible, Emirati astronaut Nora Al Matrooshi has said.

Speaking to The National ahead of the country’s Golden Jubilee, the first Arab female astronaut said the UAE has focused heavily on developing its citizens’ skills and abilities.

The 27-year-old mechanical engineer is part of an astronaut generation that could be landing on the Moon — a feat the UAE is hoping to achieve.

For a country that was formed only 50 years ago, the Emirates already has many space achievements to its name, from sending its first astronaut into space, placing a spacecraft around Mars to launching domestically-built satellites.

Feats within this decade could include an Emirati rover on the lunar surface and an asteroid belt exploration mission, with a Venus fly-by.

“The main factors that have paved the way for progress in such a short period of time is how the country’s resources are being used to develop the people’s skills and abilities,” Ms Al Matrooshi said.

“The drive that this country's leaders have planted in their people has pushed them to dream big and work hard in every sector, including space.

“An example of that is that the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, which was established in 2006. Since then, there have been a variety of space programmes.”

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The UAE has invested in its people by giving them every opportunity to learn to grow to dream and innovate
Nora Al Matrooshi

At the start of the country’s space journey, the UAE collaborated with South Korea to develop the skills of Emirati engineers and build the country’s first two Earth-observation satellites — DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2.

To launch the Mars mission, Emiratis worked alongside experienced scientists and engineers from three US-based universities.

Now, the country’s four astronauts are being trained by Nasa in preparation for long-duration space missions.

“Knowledge-sharing isn't a new concept — it's how civilisations grew and evolved,” Ms Al Matrooshi said.

“Building international partnerships and the knowledge and skills we gained from others is just one of the key steps of development.

“The UAE has invested in its people by giving them every opportunity to learn to grow to dream and innovate — that is also one of the vital steps taken to develop the country’s space sector.”

A growing number of universities are now offering bachelor and master’s programmes in space-related studies.

Many of these educational institutions also have space centres that allow satellite development and space research to help students gain practical skills.

At the UAE University in Al Ain, for example, students pursuing the master’s programme in Space Science have access to this high-tech satellite facility.

More recently, Dubai launched a satellite station that can be used by university students to test code on live satellites in orbit.

The ground station is an initiative by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority to help students develop skills in managing satellites and their technology.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - November 13th, 2017: Alia Al Mansoori, 14 in the Starliner simulation at the Dubai airshow. Monday, November 13th, 2017 at Al Maktoum Airport, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Alia Al Mansoori, 19, is an Emirati student who has already gained some benefit from the opportunities available in the UAE’s space sector.

At 15, she won the Genes in UAE Space competition for her proposal to study how exposure to space affects the health of live organisms at a cellular level.

In 2017, the aspiring astronaut’s experiment was sent to the International Space Station, carried by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“We have come a long way from where we started,” Ms Al Mansoori told The National.

“We’re seeing more opportunities being created by the day. One of the main things I’ve realised is that more people in the UAE are entering the space field, whether it’s through chemistry, biology, physics, engineering or maths.

“The youth also get the experience because they get to visit the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre or the UAE Space Agency to learn more from professionals.

“And when they do hire, they employ young engineers who are fresh graduates, so they get opportunities to work on some really cool projects.”

Updated: December 1st 2021, 5:00 AM