The first woman on Mars might be Emirati: Why UAE’s space centre is banking on women

Here's how Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre is preparing the next generation of women for the space race.

Long before man first walked on the moon, scientists and dreamers have been sizing up Mars as the next frontier for human development.

Scientists leading the space race have traditionally been from the United States, China, and Russia, and while many have mounted missions to Mars, only 22 of the 55 projects have been successful.

The United Arab Emirates’ own ambitious space plans may be what pushes the industry forward.

By July 2020,  the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) will launch the Hope spacecraft on a seven-month journey to the Red Planet. The UAE’s ambitious space plans go further than that, led by a vision that places women in pioneering roles.

The UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) has been on overdrive with their plans. By 2117, MBRC envisions a fully functional life on Mars.

According to an EMM spokesperson, the purpose of the exploratory spacecraft, Hope, is to study the planet’s atmosphere in detail, setting the scene for a long-tail dream of terraforming Mars. 2021 will mark the UAE’s 50th year of nationhood and the success of Hope will make space travel a first for any Arab nation.

Getting to Mars is one thing. Terraforming the Red Planet is another. MBRC’s vision is a 100-year national program, Mars 2117.

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As part of the Mars 2117 strategy,  the UAE plans to ramp up local skills and leadership in scientific exploration over the next few decades, a lot of which rests on the talent and leadership of Emirati women.

“Women represent 40% of MBRSC’s workforce,” says Dr Sara Al Maeeni, MBRSC’s space communications expert and researcher for EMM. “Nothing is impossible … I have a feeling we will in the future have a UAE lady astronaut.”

The UAE’s space goals feature women in leadership roles across the board. Sarah Amiri is the head of the Emirates Mars Mission Science Team at the MBRSC, while Mona Al Qemzi, is the Assistant Director General of the centre’s corporate support sector. The centre also has a large number of space engineers, many of whom are women.

Science and technology are notoriously male dominated sectors worldwide, which underscores the need for more female role models to encourage young women to enter the these academic fields.

At a panel event on encourage women in space at Project Space, Abigail Harrison, popularly known as Astronaut Abby, took to the stage to highlight the importance of supporting and promoting strong women in leadership roles, particularly in sectors that a greater investment in future talent. According to Harrison, more women need to see the value in taking up STEM subjects in school and university to strengthen the talent pipeline for space exploration.

Speaking globally, Dr Cathy Swan, a specialist in space policy highlights that space exploration has historically been a man’s world. “The first astronauts and cosmonauts were in the early 1960s, but we didn’t have an American woman in space until 1983,” she told The National. 

“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 in schools, which is encouraging because the landscape is changing.”

To that end, Project Space will be held on an annual basis in order to enhance the young generations’ knowledge in the field space science and technology, according to MBRSC’s Al Qezmi.

Al Qezmi says that university and school students have shown a growing interest in space-related events and initiatives. It is these children who will form the next generation of scientists, engineers and specialists. Alongside establishing relatable role models, she stresses the importance of continued motivation to encourage youth towards various fields of science.

As ambitious as Mars 2117 may seem, these initiatives do more for society in adding to the momentum for gender parity in science and technology.

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