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Why the Next Emirati Astronaut Could be a Woman

As the age-old adage by a very wise woman goes, “Who run the world? Girls.” But, in the UAE, girls have their sights set on much more than just the world: Space. When the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) UAE Astronaut Programme was first announced, 35 percent of the over 4,000 applicants were Emirati women. Now, a few months after the UAE’s first astronaut, Hazzaa AlMansoori, successfully completed his iconic eight-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in September, the head of the UAE Astronaut Programme, Salem Al Marri, affirms the next local space ambassador could very well be a woman at a press conference in Dubai on Tuesday, November 12.    

“We will choose the most talented and suitable candidate regardless of gender,” said Al Marri. “They will receive the same treatment as any other candidate and it’s a case of may the best person win.”

Women have continuously ascended to historic new heights in space exploration, with the first woman to travel to space in 1963, the first female space station commander in 2008, and more recently, the first all-female spacewalk last month with two of AlMansoori’s crewmates on the ISS: Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.   

Launched in 2017, the UAE’s Astronaut Program was created to train an Emirati Astronaut Corps and establish the UAE as an international leader in space exploration. One of the topmost goals of the first such program in the region is to send four Emirati astronauts on various trips to the ISS over the next five years.

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“The most competitive applicants will be selected to be ambassadors for the UAE in space exploration,” said Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in an official press release of the program’s debut. 

Interested applicants registered online with their qualifications and finalists were selected to undergo a medical assessment and interviews as well as months of theoretical, scientific, and other specialty trainings before the two top candidates were finalized: AlMansoori and Sultan AlNeyadi. 

Although the two will continue their training to potentially embark on future missions, AlNeyadi, the backup astronaut for the recent UAE Astronaut 1 expedition, is hopeful this achievement will demonstrate the sky isn’t the limit for future space explorer optimists, including his own daughter.  

“I hope in 10 or 15 years’ time my own daughter can carry the legacy forward and become an astronaut,” AlNeyadi said during the press conference.

The next stop for the UAE: Mars. And gender equality.

As part of the 17 goals in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UAE aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” not only in the aeronautic sector but also in all sectors.

Already, 45 percent of the UAE’s space sector workforce is Emirati women, Dr. Mohamed Nasser Al Ahbabi, Director-General of the UAE Space Agency told WAM in August, a sector with the highest female employment rates in the world. 

From building satellites and designing probes—including the first Emirati satellite KhalifaSat and the first Arab probe expected to head to Mars in 2020, the Hope Probe—to advancing research studies and leading scientific experiments, young generations of local women are inspiring a culture of change in the Middle East, paving a clear-lit path to the stars.   

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