UAE women lead space race

Fatima Al Hameli, left, and Shamma bin Safwan are aerospace students at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National

ABU DHABI // Fatima Al Hameli had always dreamed of going into space. As a child she had books and films on everything to do with astronomy and space travel, dreaming one day of being the first Emirati woman at Nasa.

Now, the 21-year-old undergraduate is on that very path. She is one of more than 100 students to benefit from the newly opened space lab at Khalifa University, the first of its kind in the country.

“I’m aiming to be part of the space agency here,” said the aerospace engineering student, who is a part of a Boeing-sponsored satellite development project, Cubesat, which is also run with the UAE space agency.

“I wanted to study astronomy when I was young. When I was 7 years old I told my parents I was going to the US to study space. It was a childhood dream but they wanted me to be a doctor or a teacher. They said it would be easier for me.”

Ms Al Hameli is slowly proving them wrong and they are now behind her all the way. “I read a lot about Nasa, astronomy books – I would really love to be an astronaut. I’ve dreamed of this. I think being here, I’m on the right path now.”

Prof Tod Laursen, president of the university, said the space lab would tie in with the UAE’s space technology and space travel aims.

“With the space lab and other efforts, we seek to make our expertise in space applications even more intense, in view of the UAE’s planned Mars mission and other important initiatives foreseen in space technology,” he said.

“The space lab will offer us the capability to study the motion control of space structures such as satellites, orbital vehicles and the like, and do important testing of algorithms and hardware associated with design and operations of these.

“Our plan is to engage our students in important project work that will ultimately lead to an ability to work in the design and implementation of future space projects.”

Ms Al Hameli is one of a growing number of Emirati women moving to the field – 65 of the 100 undergraduate students are women.

Shamma bin Safwan, 22, is also working on Cubesat. The RAK student also hopes to work for the space agency.

“My father travelled a lot and took us with him. He loves planes and made me love it as well, so I wanted to study more about how it worked,” she said.

Ms Al Hameli hopes that she and the other women will inspire more to follow in their footsteps. But already Emirati women are doing well, especially compared with similar courses in the West, where women make up only about 10 per cent of students.

“I’ve been encouraging my sisters and friends to join,” she said. “Before, we thought it was impossible to communicate with Nasa but now we can talk, share, attend seminars with agencies like that now.

“I would love to be the first Emirati to go to Nasa and be a role model to others.

“A lot of women are afraid, thinking it is a man’s field, but there are many women and they can also be here.”


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