From Gaza to Mars: meet the Palestinian engineer who helped build Nasa's Ingenuity helicopter

Loay Elbasyouni tells 'The National' that studying space will allow people to solve Earth's problems

A Palestinian engineer who helped to design and build Nasa’s pioneering Mars helicopter set his sights on green energy and believes space exploration can benefit all of humanity.

Loay Elbasyouni, 42, was a lead electrical engineer on the Ingenuity helicopter project which made history in March by carrying out the first powered flight on another planet.

The technology demonstrator has now flown on the Red Planet three times, with several increasingly ambitious flights planned for the coming weeks.

Critics of space exploration say the often large amounts of money involved would be better spent solving problems on Earth.

But Mr Elbasyouni, who grew up in the village of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, told The National that “investment in science helps all of humanity”.

“Studying and understanding space will help us to understand things on Earth,” he said, speaking on Zoom from his home in Los Angeles.

The first trailblazing flights of the Ingenuity helicopter showed that human beings can achieve what was once thought to be impossible, he said.

“It was like the first attempt to fly from the surface of the Earth,” he said, referring to the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903. “It was a mission that was almost impossible.”

Mr Elbasyouni left Gaza in 1998 for the United States, where he studied engineering.

After university he worked for several companies developing renewable energy technology and designing electric aircraft. He joined the Nasa project as a contractor working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2014.

“I was responsible for electrical systems that included motors, controllers, the motor algorithms, servo motor selections, servo controllers, and all the wiring and communication with Ingenuity’s body,” he said.

Mr Elbasyouni, however, is determined not to rest on his laurels and is planning to help tackle the climate crisis by finding new ways to generate renewable energy.

"I am looking forward to establishing my own company to find ways of using clean and alternative energy sources to replace traditional sources of energy, including in aerospace,” he said. “This requires effort and investment”.

Loay Elbasyouni at work. Courtesy Loay Elbasyouni
Loay Elbasyouni at work. Courtesy Loay Elbasyouni

Mr Elbasyouni’s journey to the forefront of scientific achievement was an unlikely one.

To get an education in the Palestinian territory was a significant challenge, and Mr Elbasyouni spent time in several schools set up by the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, UNWRA.

Even once he had reached the relative security of the US university system, Mr Elbasyouni still had to overcome several hurdles.

When his family’s agricultural lands were bulldozed by Israeli tanks at the start of the Second Intifada, Mr Elbasyouni’s father, a surgeon, could no longer support him and his three brothers financially and he had to put his studies on hold.

“At that time I delivered pizza to save some money to complete my education,” he said.

He has not been able to return to Gaza to see his family since 2000 because of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the coastal enclave introduced in 2007.

A young Loay Elbasyouni, second from right, and his siblings in Gaza. Courtesy Loay Elbasyouni
A young Loay Elbasyouni, second from right, and his siblings in Gaza. Courtesy Loay Elbasyouni

“Even with a US passport, it is hard to travel back to Gaza,” he said. “I can’t be sure that if I travelled to visit my family I would not get stuck there if the border closed.”

Mr Elbasyouni is a source of pride for many people in the Palestinian territories.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini also celebrated the engineer’s achievement.

Mr Elbasyouni is proud of his Palestinian heritage and has fond memories of his childhood in Gaza.

“I chose to live in Los Angeles because it has similar weather to Gaza," he said. “I live near the sea, where I go every day and remember the old Gaza seaport where I spent most of my childhood”.

Mr Elbasyouni is optimistic that there is a bright future for Gaza and hailed the territory’s potential.

“Gaza has a lot of talent, I follow a lot of inventions coming from there and I am proud of it,” he said.

“I think there is a lot of hope which could flourish if people have enough access to power.”

Mr Elbasyouni is also excited about the future of space exploration, and said he believed even greater achievements were on the horizon.

"We will be able to develop helicopters that can fly at higher altitudes than they can now,” he said, suggesting that helicopters like Ingenuity could one day be used to explore other planets.

Updated: May 1, 2021 08:27 PM

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