Meet the first Egyptian, Arab female to blast into space – Middle East Monitor
In a field among the stars, where Egypt had no markers, engineer Sara Sabry became the first Egyptian, Arab and African woman to blast into space.
The view of Earth from outer space has utterly transformed perspectives on civilisation, the planet, and the world’s relationship to the universe beyond l.
And as the world’s collective fascination with the final frontier climbs to new heights, a social impact non-profit, Space for Humanity, has been running a Space Station Ambassador Programme for enthusiasts and educators to expand access to space and embrace a culture of interconnectedness.
In its 2021 programme, Sara, 29, was selected out of 7,000 citizens from all parts of the world and all backgrounds to go into space to experience a phenomenon that many professional astronauts have described as the Overview Effect, which is the cognitive shift that some astronauts experience when seeing the Earth from space.
Sara noted an enormous number of changes to her perspective regarding all that she knew upon her return to Earth.
She explains: “In an instant, my perspective on the scale of everything just changed. Everything I understood before made different sense when I was out there, but it wasn’t scary. I’ve never actually felt so comfortable and at peace with myself.”
“I feel like I have this new connection with the universe now and it’s what I was meant to do my whole life.”
Without hesitation, she adds: “I wanted to go back the moment I returned back to Earth. I felt right at home in space.”
Riding Blue Origin’s NS-22 flight, she describes being accelerated upwards with a force that significantly exceeds Earth’s gravity, similar to a roller coaster or a car accelerating from rest with the gas pedal pressed to the floor. But she was prepared for every moment, sound and movement.
“I was very prepared and ready by the time I was strapped into the capsule chair. Everything is muscle memory; I’m not thinking about harnessing or the sounds of the machine etc. It’s all ingrained into memory,” she explains.
Before the mission to space, Sara, along with her flight crew, which included another first-time space flyer, conducted comprehensive operational exercises in preparation for human space flight, including emergency procedures and common problems that professional astronauts are trained for like fire response, emergency mask usage and exiting the spacecraft in a hurry on the pad.
“The process has been simulated over and over again, including all the things that could possibly go wrong so I wasn’t scared. It was the mental preparation that took the most work,” says Sara.
“The first few times I’d visualise myself, I would feel extreme anxiety and get bad stomach aches and get all sweaty because it’s a heavy, life-changing experience, I only found out I was going into space just two weeks in advance, so it was all really fast and the following two weeks were jam-packed with intense preparation.”
“And that included a lot of mental coaching. But before I had even known I was going to space, I would go to sleep visualising myself in the capsule and launching into space and that would be the last thing I envision before going to bed. It became my second nature.”
A graduate of the American University in Cairo with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, along with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy, the Egyptian national is also the founder and executive director of Deep Space Initiative, a non-profit aiming to expand space research accessibility.
Growing up in Egypt, she observed the lack of space science education and agency, which Sara believes has set Egyptian space initiatives and technology back substantially compared to the United States and Europe.
The lack of Egyptian space agency has also resulted in the absence of cooperation with the education system on space science that could inspire students to pursue interests in the field and advance prospects for an Egyptian space agency.
“The more I studied and worked and gained experience from around the world, I realised the space field was so inaccessible for someone like me because I’m Egyptian and don’t have any other passport. All opportunities for the space field are either in the US or in Europe but it’s very limited,” said Sara.
“There’s a lot of laws that exist that make it so inaccessible for someone like me, so that was a big reason why I founded the Deep Space Initiative. We offer programmes and initiatives that make it easier for people to want to get themselves into the space field and gain a certified course. It’s everything I wished I had at the beginning of my journey.”
For Sara, being part of an increasing number of women playing a very visible role in space is an honour.
Around the world, only 18 per cent of women in college and universities are pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, compared with 35 per cent of men, according to the UN.
Inspired by Stephen Hawking’s discoveries and driven by a burning desire to understand the expanding universe and all its complexities, Sara was determined to reach space and beyond ever since learning about astrophysics.
“I became really interested in astrophysics because I’m always trying to understand what’s happening in the space field and we always depend so much on physicists. In reality, you’ll find there are more questions than answers and that made me wonder how I can combine my skills in mechanical and biomedical engineering to push humanity forward in terms of it becoming a multi-planetary and for us to be able to understand our origins and future because this is the field that has the most impact on us as humans,” she says.
Having achieved one of her greatest dreams of blasting into space, Sara also dreams of a future where everyone can share in the perspective gained by those who were fortunate enough to experience it for themselves.
“The first thing I said when I landed was that everyone needs to see this. It felt so unfair to me that only about 600 people have ever – in the history of humanity – been able to see Earth from space. It shouldn’t be an experience for just a select few in the world, this is also what’s driving me a lot more to make it happen with Deep Space Initiative, to make it accessible for everyone.”