Portrait of a Nation: the intrepid Dubai businesswoman helping UAE children reach for the stars
Lissy Donald has helped spark a passion for space among thousands of young people
From organising trips to space camps abroad, bringing astronauts to the UAE, helping young people build model rockets and setting up the Emirates’ first space camp, Lissy Donald has been campaigning for space education for nearly two decades.
Ms Donald, 54, took her first group of pupils to a space camp in the United States in 2004, and has been helping the next generation reach for the stars ever since.
The Indian citizen founded Dubai-based Compass International Tours in 2003, a firm that specialises in education travel management.
“Space camps were still a ‘far off’ thing when we started taking students for the experiences abroad,” Ms Donald told The National.
“Nasa was perceived as a place where only the high and mighty could reach or something we saw in the movies.”
Back then, the UAE’s space sector was in its early stages. The nation had no satellites in space, the space agency had not been formed yet and schools did not have dedicated studies in space.
Ms Donald, who moved to the UAE in 1994, managed to secure partnerships with the US Space and Rocket Centre in Alabama, the Cosmodome in Montreal and the Euro Space Centre in Belgium for youth space education training programmes.
“We started taking pupils from the GCC and the neighbouring countries for Nasa camps and the learning was immense,” she said.
“The teachers and parents were happy and impressed enough to make it and made it an annual affair in their diaries.
“Space was often a field that seemed only a selected few can reach, but through these space camps, I wanted to show these kids that they can achieve it, too.”
For those pupils who could not travel abroad, Ms Donald started bringing space experts to the UAE so they could also have access to space education.
Some of these include Nasa astronauts Donald Thomas and Ken Cameron, Dr Jim Rice, a Mars rover co-investigator, as well as microbiologists and engineers who work with space agencies.
"When the UAE decided to take an interest in space education and exploration, the interest among the youth also started to get stronger," she said.
"With the establishment of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and the UAE Space Agency, things started to build great momentum. We began to get more interest in space camps, we started getting more requests to invite the astronauts for interactive sessions – space was not very far any longer."
As the nation’s space sector started to flourish, Ms Donald found local partners who supported her work.
In 2017, she hosted the first space camp in the UAE for gifted and talented children at the Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Giftedness and Creativity.
The participants built model rockets with the help of Nasa astronaut Don Thomas and launched them.
The same year, she also formed the Space and Rocketry Academy.
“Participants of this camp learn about space, science, engineering and rocketry as part of their curriculum week,” said Ms Donald.
“Pupils design and build model rockets, they work on a Mars mission engineering design challenges and much more.”
For those who cannot afford to be part of these camps, Ms Donald said her firm sponsors some of them so they can also have access.
Even though the space camps are relatively new as compared to ones in the US and Europe that have decades of experience to draw on. Ms Donald is working with local space officials and private firms to offer pupils more.
“Today we have formal alliances with The Space Camp, The Space Foundation, Nanoracks, Cosmodome, Destination Imagination and many more leading space education providers,” she said.
Her firm is also bringing astronaut training simulators to the UAE.
Ms Donald said the country's astronaut programme and the Hope Mars Mission has taken the youth's interest in space to the "next level".
"Astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri’s successful journey to the International Space Station made history and helped us believe in ourselves more than ever. It also set the perfect scene for the launch of the upcoming mission to Mars," she said.
At present, there are several contributors to the space education scene in the UAE.
Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre has been hosting its 'Science Event' since 2017, an annual educational conference attended by many pupils.
The space centre also launched its 'Space Explorer Camp' in 2018.
Officials from the UAE Space Agency tour schools, educating the youth on all things space-related.
Maj Al Mansouri and Dr Sultan Al Neyadi, the back up astronaut for UAE's first space mission, had also been touring schools nationwide in efforts to inspire pupils.
Besides her work in the Emirates, Ms Donald runs a charity organisation, called Heavenly Mission, in India.
She sponsors the education of underprivileged youth, especially those who are victims of poverty and human trafficking.
Portrait of a Nation
“My dream is to give these less fortunate children an opportunity to know and learn about Space,” she said.
“I would love to get my Heavenly Mission children over to experience and learn about space. The amount of talent and curiosity in the children cannot be undermined, all they need is opportunity.”
Ms Donald’s next goal is establishing a permanent space camp in the UAE, similar to what is available in the US.
Updated: June 25, 2020 05:36 PM