CHICAGO: Last week, the UAE introduced Nora Al-Matrooshi as the first Arab woman to start training to be an astronaut as she could play a pivotal role in the country’s upcoming space missions.
The UAE, considered a newcomer to the world of space exploration, sent the first Emirati into space as part of a three-member crew that blasted off on a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan in September 2019.
One year later, Abu Dhabi said it planned to launch an unmanned rover to the moon by 2024 which would be the first trip to Earth’s satellite by an Arab country.
Then in February, the UAE’s “Hope” probe successfully entered Mars’ orbit making history as the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
If Al-Matrooshi does find herself involved in a future space mission, she would be just the second Arab woman to actually fly on a NASA mission. The first woman was Christa McAuliffe, a US teacher and astronaut of Lebanese American heritage, who died during the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986.
This past year, McAuliffe was honored as her image appeared on the face of an American silver dollar coin to continue her educational mission 35 years after she and her six astronaut crewmates were tragically lost in flight.
But whether they are from the Arab world or from the diaspora in Western countries, Arabs clearly have a role to play in space exploration, said Hasan Almekdash, who works as a bio-statistician contractor through Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), a US-based company operating in fields of science, technology, and engineering.
“I know about 24 other Arab Americans who work or worked at NASA,” said Almekdash, who is focused on the biomedical research and environmental sciences division at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC).
“Most of the people are engineers and scientists supporting some NASA divisions as contractors.”
Two of the Arab Americans working on NASA’s Mars Exploration program are Palestinians and originally from the Gaza Strip. Loay Elbasyouni grew up in Beit Hanoun and was a part of the engineering team that launched a helicopter from the surface of Mars in February 2021.
The other Arab American is Soha Al-Qeshawi, a senior software engineer, who is helping NASA build the Orion spacecraft, which will serve as the exploratory spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the Red Planet.
Almekdash told Arab News that Arab American participation in NASA projects “is an opportunity for our community to give back to this country.” Along with other Arabs from America and the Arab World, he is playing “a significant role” in the exploration of Mars.
“We are studying long space travel and its implications on health because when you go to space, you have a lot of fluid changes,” Almekdash said.
“You have a lot of things that happen to the muscles and bones. You have a radiation effect. Life happens, even in space, so you run into medical situations and you need to figure out a way to deal with these. Basically, we conduct research at NASA and KBR. We support the NASA scientists in our expertise to find optimal solutions for long space travel.”
“I am focused on medical research,” Almekdash said. “So hopefully, we will try to solve all the data problems like human health in space and how to make long space travel possible.”
Almekdash made his comments during an appearance Wednesday on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show” broadcast live on WNZK AM 690 Radio in Detroit, and WDMV AM 700 Radio in Washington D.C. on the US Arab Radio Network. The radio show was streamed live on the Arab News Facebook page and is on a podcast at ArabNews.com/RayRadioshow.