The newest recruit to the UAE’s astronaut training program - and the first female Emirati astronaut - hopes that her mechanical engineering degree will be her ticket to the moon.
Nora AlMatrooshi and her fellow trainee astronaut Mohammad AlMulla were selected from 4000 highly qualified candidates to lead the nation’s 9.8 million citizens into space.
The duo are looking forward to the gruelling 30-month program ahead of them which has already begun with them getting their divers’ licences, coming to grips with the Russian language and coaching for their many media interviews – and will move on to flight and weightlessness school at the Johnson Space Centre in Texas and eventually harsh survival training.
“They will need mechanical engineers to build a base on the moon,” says the 28-year-old, who represented her nation at the Mathematics Olympics and worked as an engineer at the National Petroleum Construction Company and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
AlMatrooshi says she has dreamed of the stars since kindergarten, when her teacher set up the classroom as the Lunar surface and the five-year-old future astronaut constructed a cardboard moonbase. That early longing to explore space charted her degree choice.
“I actually went after it. I chose to study a degree in mechanical engineering because of a documentary I watched when I was in high school. It was about a group of astronauts going to the International Space Station and the role of the mechanical engineer was highlighted,” she says.
Leading big construction projects in the desert has helped equip the daughter of two academics – a PhD father and English teacher mother - for Lunar construction.
“I'd like to be part of the construction project - whether they build on the moon, or if they're going to construct it here on Earth and land it on the moon - I'd like to be involved.
Challenging but interesting
“It's going to be challenging, obviously, but it would be something very interesting to do, and it will be different to doing projects on Earth.”
AlMatrooshi says it’s essential to remind those in charge of your passions.
“In the final interview before we were selected I told them I know that NASA has the Artemis program to get to the moon and that I really want to be part of that.”
AlMatrooshi’s fellow trainee astronaut, UAE police helicopter pilot AlMulla, meanwhile says astronaut training has been “a big career change”.
“I spent 15 years qualifying to be a pilot, including training in Australia for my commercial pilot’s licence,” says the father of two.
“As a pilot you get used to mastering everything - suddenly I’m changing my path. So as a trainee astronaut is like starting a new life from scratch.”
He says the extra available seats thanks to SpaceX’s seven-seat Dragon capsule coming online as a human-rated rocket gives him hope for a mission soon after he has finished training.
“Going into space is the dream. I’ll be working and training hard for several years, to fulfil a dream to travel into space.
“I'm a big fan of SpaceX. The rockets and even the fancy space suits. And hopefully all four of us – and all the astronauts who come after us will get to be a part of future missions – perhaps even to the moon eventually.”
He says he was inspired to apply for the nation’s second intake of trainee astronauts after the stunning success of the first Emirati in space, Hazzaa AlMansoori, who blasted into orbit in 2019 and spent a week aboard the International Space Station.
“His was a big achievement for our Space Center and the United Arab Emirates. I'm very proud of him and I felt that I wanted to join the team and be a part of it.”
Mimicking zero gravity
Now, AlMansoori and Sultan AlNeyadi, are back in Texas undertaking additional training with NASA, to prepare them for further space missions including training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab that prepares astronauts for spacewalks.
The pair were also part of the committee that selected the winning astronauts, which AlMansoori says was a difficult task, given the high calibre of applicants.
“It was a privilege to be on the other side of the of the table - I was there, in their shoes, a few years ago,” says the ex-UAE fighter pilot.
His advice for the new crop of trainee astronauts: “You have a big responsibility.”
“When it comes to training, it's really tough - you are doing something new every day. You have to have that mentality of wearing different hats, and sometimes more than one hat in one day.
He says being an astronaut is a “very unique job”.
“But it’s an important job - especially for Nora because she’s going to be the first female astronaut from our region to go to space,” he says.
“She can and will inspire millions of girls all around the world, especially in our country and in our region, because they will think that is now something that's achievable for them.”
AlNeyadi says being on the selection panel was a privilege.
“We interviewed people from different sectors, different disciplines - from pilots to doctors and engineers - and Mohammad and Nora showed they have what it takes to be astronauts,” he says.
“The top candidates are among the best people I have ever met. Likewise, the top finalists that we've interviewed, so we're lucky, really lucky to have them by our side and working in our team.”
On AlMatrooshi’s plans to help build the first moon base, AlNeyadi says: “I think it's really ambitious - in a good way.”
Discover more about the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre and their planned space missions on our Reach for the Stars content hub.