Arab world’s first woman astronaut brings new dimension to our space programme: AlMarri

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

Dubai - Different backgrounds and mindsets will help us grow and aim for more complex missions, says MBRSC boss.

By Nandini Sircar

Published: Sun 11 Apr 2021, 7:05 PM

UAE is not only pushing the gender boundaries but introducing ‘diversity’ in all walks of life as the selection of Nora Al Matrooshi as the Arab world’s first woman astronaut proves, a top official said.

Salem AlMarri. UAE’s Assistant Director General for Scientific and Technical Affairs and Head of the UAE Astronaut Programme at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), said as the UAE keeps challenging global conventions, records are only a natural outcome of such pursuits.

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, AlMarri talked about the new selection criteria for the UAE astronauts corps, and how they always strive for diversity and inclusivity in their space programme after the country announced two names for the second batch of the UAE astronaut programme on Saturday.

Shedding light on the pioneering role of UAE women in space, AlMarri said the selection of 28-year old Al Matrooshi and 32-year-old Mohammed Almulla would bring a varied perspective to human space life.

Talking about Nora and the selection process, AlMarri said the quality that made her a cut above the rest, was her determination to excel. “One thing that really stood out for us is her determination. She started this journey with us nearly a year and a half ago. When she applied to the programme she was very determined to be a part of the programme and she showed her commitment from day one. She passed all the fitness, medical and other critical tests. That’s something which knocks out at least 50 to 60 per cent of candidates. She has very strong capabilities in Math and Science. She won the International Mathematical Olympiad and has other impressive accomplishments.”

Nora who is a mechanical engineer from the United Arab Emirates University always had a passion for space from a young age. Excelling in engineering and mathematics, she was also selected for the UAE Youth Ambassadors Programme in South Korea.

He adds, “She has a very high level of IQ and all these skill sets also align with what she is doing in her daily job. She is a mechanical engineer working at the National Petroleum Construction Company. That kind of physical job that she has been doing for five to six years is something that we were interested in seeing…the fact that she was able to work in a relatively male dominated field with ease. All these things put together, revealed to us that she could be a fit candidate for the next astronaut programme at MBRSC.”

Al Marri said the selection criterion was purely based on quality, adding that a well-rounded space programme requires diversity on all fronts. “We have selected people based on their skill sets and capabilities. That’s the chief criterion. Candidates need to pass rigorous medical and psychological tests and passing those levels is the first thing. The fact that it’s a woman is something that we are all very proud of. I was hoping we could get two females, but I am happy at least one out of the two is a female. This way, we have introduced diversity into our core team of astronauts and it’s really important to us. I think what Nora will be able to bring to the team is something unique and that will help the team become more successful and make it more inclusive, as they go on to conduct different types of missions. It’s very good news and a happy story for the UAE.”

He said the UAE’s space programme will immensely benefit from having a female astronaut. “I feel when you have men and women working together that definitely make the outcomes much stronger. You see different levels of discussions, negotiations, different insights that come from men and women…different perceptions from engineers and non-engineers. Having a group of male and female astronauts, the way they support each other and the compassion between them, is I think something that we didn’t have before, when it was just men. That’s a big aspect that we will be looking forward to.

“Additionally, rather than just getting people from a military background, now we have civilians, engineers, scientists, pilots, helicopter pilots… these different kinds of backgrounds and mindsets will really allow us to aim bigger and aim for more complex missions ahead,” he adds.

AlMarri said now senior astronauts Hazza Al Mansouri and Sultan Al Neyadi will have to play a mentoring role when they are joined by the duo at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, by the end of this year for training.

“Hazza and Sultan are currently continuing their training at Houston. They are experienced men. Earlier they went to Russia as well. They are definitely senior astronauts in terms of space experience and are space trained. They have more life experience as well. They are in their late 30s, whereas Mohammed is in his early 30s and Nora is in her late 20s, so we now have a younger generation coming in. Hazza and Sultan really have to take a leadership and a mentorship role here, supporting them in training or any kind of difficulty that they face.

“At the same time getting in a younger generation to work with people who are older, also has its visible advantages and you learn a lot from that as well. The older astronauts also better understand what the younger generation is looking forward to in terms of human space life and space exploration and someone from another gender. A female will definitely add a new dimension and will give us many different ways of thinking,” opines AlMarri.

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