Beyond the Glass Ceiling: UAE Women Propelling Space Science Forward
March 28, 2023
By Hessa AlShuwaihi, Head of Communications and Public Diplomacy
Space symbolizes limitless possibilities. This promise propelled the UAE, a young nation of just 52 years, to enthusiastically invest in education and research to become an integral part of the ever-growing global space industry.
Since 2006, when the Dubai-based Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) started out with just five engineers, the UAE has sent the first Emirati to space, developed the first-of-its-kind Hope Probe to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, launched a 100% Emirati-built satellite, and recently began the first Arab Moon mission.
Every day I see how these achievements inspire the next generation of Emirati youth to reach for the stars – including my two young girls.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral with other diplomats from the UAE Embassy in Washington and a delegation from MBRSC for Emirati Astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi’s launch to the International Space Station (ISS).
Astronaut Al Neyadi successfully blasted into space on March 22, 2023, as part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 Mission. His six months aboard the orbital laboratory marks the Arab world’s first long-duration space mission and the UAE’s second mission to the ISS.
While at the launch site, I couldn’t help but notice the number of women from the UAE that comprised the MBRSC delegation, including Dr. Hanan Al Suwaidi, who serves as Astronaut Dr. Al Neyadi’s flight surgeon and physician. She is set to monitor his health throughout the course of the mission.
Dr. Al Suwaidi, a family physician from Dubai, was chosen as Astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri’s flight surgeon during the UAE’s first mission to the ISS in 2019.
Due to a strong commitment from the UAE’s leadership to ensure equal opportunities between women and men, my daughters will only know a reality where women are leaders at diverse organizations, research entities, businesses, and government departments. We are leading the Emirates forward and solving the world’s most pressing issues.
Notably, women have been at the forefront of the UAE’s space program since its inception, making their mark on historic missions like the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM). In February 2021, the UAE became the first Arab nation and fifth country to reach Mars. Women represented 34% of the team and 80% of the science team, including scientific data analyst Maryam Yousuf.
In her role, Yousuf studies images, spectra, and other valuable data from Mars – transmitted to Earth from the EMM. Yousuf's contributions not only help her nation but also the international scientific community since the UAE remains committed to collaborating with international partners. To this point, over one terabyte (1 TB) of data from the Hope Mars Probe is available for free to researchers all over the world.
The next space milestone we’ll reach is when the UAE’s Rashid Rover lands on the lunar surface on April 25.
A true international collaboration, the Rashid Rover blasted off for the Moon in late 2022 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 SpaceX Rocket, in a lunar lander designed by Japanese company ispace. If successful, this mission will add the UAE and Japan to the short list of nations – US, Russia, and China – that have placed spacecraft on the Moon.
The UAE’s Moon mission will explore untouched areas of the lunar surface and relay critical information to help the international space community better understand the electrically charged environment on the Moon. Rashid is just the first of three rovers the UAE plans to launch over the next three years.
“Rashid Rover is part of the UAE’s ambitious space programme, which began with Mars, progressed to the Moon, and soon to Venus. Our goal is to increase our knowledge, enhance our capabilities, and leave a scientific legacy in the history of space and humanity,” said HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on the day of the launch.
“Reaching the Moon is a milestone in our ambitious march to progress for our nation and its people, who know no limits. And our next step is bigger and higher,” he continued.
Later this year, the MBRSC will also launch the UAE-made MBZ-SAT, the region’s most powerful advanced-imaging satellite. The space center team is working with five private companies in the UAE to manufacture the satellite. This dynamic reflects the UAE’s collaborative approach to its space missions which is helping drive the development of diverse new business sectors.
We look forward to April, when the UAE’s lunar rover makes its attempt to land on the moon, further inspiring our youth to reach for the planets and the stars – and maybe one day, we’ll even see an Emirati following the footsteps of our American friends by walking on the moon.