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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Emirati girl hopes to be among the first astronauts to travel to Mars

Emirati teenager hopes to smash the glass ceiling in the space travel industry and become one of the first astronauts from the UAE to make the journey to Mars.
Dr Sara Al Maeeni wants girls to consider careers in the space industry. Antonie Robertson / The National
Dr Sara Al Maeeni wants girls to consider careers in the space industry. Antonie Robertson / The National

DUBAI // When Alia Al Mansouri grows up, she hopes to become one of the first Emirati astronauts of her generation to travel to Mars.

The 14-year-old from Dubai was one of many pupils who attended the Project Space conference yesterday where female scientists and space experts discussed the need for more women in the industry.

Of the 537 people who have travelled into space so far, only 60 have been women. But the trend is changing, according to Dr Sara Al Maeeni, an expert in space communication and research at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, where 40 per cent of the employees are female.

“We’d like to increase that number,” said Dr Al Maeeni, who joined the centre last year.

“The UAE has been very supportive of women. The leaders have always given tremendous support to women and established organisations to empower women, encouraging them to go into education in every possible way and we can see now that women are everywhere.”

She said the country’s ministries were led by powerful female figures trying to empower youth to create their own future.

“It is the same in the space sector,” she said. “There are challenges but nothing is impossible. The more you want it, the harder you’ll work for it and you have to believe in it to make it possible – this is what the UAE is based on.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it and I have a strong feeling that we will have an Emirati female astronaut in the near future.”

Bakhita Al Muhairi is a 23-year-old Emirati pilot who works for Emirates Airline.

Only 5 per cent of the world’s pilots are female.

“I walked into college and kept seeing men,” she said. “It was the first time I experienced a college where I was the only girl.

“I finished my first class, called my mother and told her there was something wrong, but she made me feel it was OK to be the only girl and she gave me that tough love, which is what started it all.”

She said coming from a different background and being surrounded by only men and the stereotype that “women can’t fly”, was difficult.

“But jobs don’t look for men or women, they look for people who are qualified and you have to get out of your comfort zone to get to what you want to achieve,” she said.

“It’s exciting and I really love my job.”

Although women face an uphill battle in space travel, the industry is changing, with women comprising half Nasa’s class of astronauts last year and 23 per cent of its workforce.

“We’ve historically had a low number of women, and women in space have struggled to leave a mark,” said Dr Cathy Swan, a specialist in space policy.

“The first astronauts and cosmonauts were in the early 1960s, but we didn’t have an American woman in space until 1983.

“It’s difficult when the system is ingrained in a culture that thinks it’s too dangerous or hard for women to fly.

“But today, so many more women are actively involved in space and learning more science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem subjects) in schools, which is encouraging because the landscape is changing.”

Abigail Harrison, a 19-year-old aspiring astronaut from the United States, who wrote a blog for Nasa, said changing stigmas was key. “Changing the idea that it’s unusual to have women in Stem is important,” she said. “By normalising this and showing young girls and boys that women in Stem is a reality, we can promote women more.”

In the meantime, Alia, one of the five finalists in the Genes in Space competition, hopes she will accompany Ms Harrison on her prospective trip to Mars.

“Growing up, I’d watch Star Wars every morning and look at the stars through my telescope every night,” she said. “One day, it hit me that I could do this.”

cmalek@thenational.ae