In the latest episode of the Radio Astronomy podcast, the United Arab Emirates’ first female astronaut Nora Al Matrooshi discusses her ambitions and hopes for the future of spaceflight.
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Ezzy Hello, everyone, today, BBC Sky at Night magazine is joined by Noura AlMatrooshi, who is the first ever female astronaut candidate from the United Arab Emirates. So, Noura, when did you first want to become an astronaut?
Noura I actually wanted to become an astronaut, I guess, around the age of five or six. We were studying about the planets in our solar system at school, and the teacher had us doing arts and crafts where we made some of the astronaut equipment. We made some helmets and astronaut backpacks. She took us on a trip to the surface of the moon. So she pitched a tent in the middle of our classroom. She had us go in and then when we went out, the lights were turned off and she had everything covered in pieces of grey cloth. And that was the day where I decided that I wanted to become an astronaut and I actually wanted to go and see for myself what the surface of the moon looked like.
Ezzy And the United Arab Emirates, it’s fairly new into the world of human space flight. So at the time when that happened, was there a possibility that you could have become a UAE astronaut?
Noura No, at that point, no, but, you know, as kids, you don’t really… You believe at that point that anything is possible and you can achieve anything. So I guess at that age, I didn’t really think about if there was actually an astronaut programme or not. In my head I just wanted to be an astronaut and I was going to be an astronaut. And that was it. Didn’t matter if there was a programme or there wasn’t in my head I was going to get there somehow, some way.
Ezzy And how did you go about starting on that journey?
Noura So I’ll admit at certain times in my life, it did seem like impossible, but throughout my life, throughout my time at school, even in university, like I selected my major, like I chose to study mechanical engineering because of me wanting to become an astronaut. So I watched a documentary when I was in high school about a group of astronauts who are going to the International Space Station. And the role of a mechanical engineer was highlighted in that documentary. So I decided to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. One of the reasons why I selected the university I went to is because I knew that they had an internship programme with NASA. So I selected that university based on that fact. So I did end up working in a different field. I started working in the oil and gas industry. But as soon as I found the chance to switch to the space industry, I made that switch.
Ezzy And when did you first realise that actually there was a chance that you could become an astronaut. That there was a possibility that you could put in your application?
Noura It was actually when they opened up the applications for the first batch. And it was when they announced that they had selected Hazza and Sultan and it was when Hazza actually made it to the International Space Station. So it was during different moments, but the reality of it just sunk in more with every step that they were doing in the astronaut programme.
Ezzy And how did you how does one actually go about applying to be an astronaut?
Noura So I believe that regardless if you want to be an astronaut or whatever it is you want to be, you have to develop yourself and gain different skills in terms of academics, technical skills and soft skills, because if you just focus on one aspect, you’re going to be lacking in others. So you have to focus on different aspects of yourself, of your personality and according to what is required of you to reach that goal. So to be an astronaut, you have to be you have to have good leadership skills. You have to have good teamwork skills. You have to have different skills in different fields. So I, I guess I tried to be as [diverse] as possible in terms of all the activities I was doing when I was in school, when I was in university, even after that, like. And different activities I’d be doing outside of work. I guess that’s how I went about achieving this goal.
Ezzy And I should imagine it’s quite a sort of intense procedure when you’re actually going through the application process like, interviews and tests.
Noura It is, especially if it’s something you wanted for a long time and something you really want. And the feeling is very intense. Yeah.
Ezzy Mm hmm. What was the application procedure like as you were going through? Was it just interviews or did you have to do tests as well?
Noura We did actually have to do a test in the beginning. It was sort of like an IQ test, like a psychometric test as well. So it was a mixture of both. They were also testing our technical skills. And then there were the interviews, obviously they did, and even during the interviews, they had questions that would test your personality. How would you react? And then we did also the I believe it was, was it before or after? OK, so we did medical tests as well. We did a bunch of medical testing just to make sure that we were medically fit to be an astronaut. We also did teamwork exercises to check in, like, they were checking to see how we worked together as a team. We also did some physical tests as well. So… Sorry, it was a fitness test. So they tested our endurance, our strength, basically. That was what we had to go through during the application process.
Ezzy And I understand one of the interviews was you were confronted by a panel of astronauts. What was it like to having always dreamed of being one, being in the room with that many people who have actually been into space?
Noura So the thing is, I didn’t know who would be on the panel when I went in. So it was a bit of a shock because, you know, Hazzan and Sultan were there and they were there, the first two Emirati astronauts, and that was the big deal. And then there were two female astronauts from NASA, which is also a big deal. So, yeah, it was a bit of a shock at first. But then, like internally, I got so excited that I was saying as soon as this interview ends, I’m going to ask if I can take a picture with them. So I forgot at the end of the interview, I forgot to ask for a picture, but I guess now I’ll have a lot more chances to actually ask for pictures.
Ezzy Absolutely. Hopefully, and get a couple up on the International Space Station. And so then you eventually you did get selected. What was that moment like when they told you that “yes, you’re one of our astronauts.”
Noura It was amazing. It was unreal. Obviously, I was ecstatic at that time, but then it actually started to sink in the role I’d be playing the amount of responsibility that came with this with this title of being an astronaut. So because I’m going to be representing a whole country, I’m going to be representing my country. So I guess that. Feeling of commitment and responsibility sunk in I’d say a couple of days after when I started like, actually realising what was happening.
Ezzy Now you have been selected. Everybody knows you’ve been selected, have you actually started your training yet?
Noura So currently, Mohammed and I haven’t started the actual training. That will be starting next year at the Johnson Space Centre with the new batch of NASA astronaut candidates. Currently, we’re going through some, I’d say basic or initial training at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. We started learning Russian. We also got our diving licence and we will be doing some survival training and flight training as well in the future.
Ezzy And what are the aspects of of the training that you’re really particularly looking forward to?
Noura What I think is… Because Mohammed is a pilot and like when I first actually sat down and talked to him and got to know him, he started talking about flying and how amazing that feeling was. And that got me very enthusiastic about trying to fly as well. So I think the flight training, like I really want to fly at this point because of how much he talks about how fun it is. I want to try that for myself.
Ezzy Are there any parts of it that you’re dreading or not looking forward to?
Noura No, honestly. I feel like it’s all going to be fun and challenging. I enjoy a challenge. So, no, I don’t think I’m dreading anything at this point.
Ezzy I think that’s a good attitude to go in with. It’s a challenge.
Noura Yes, it’s a challenge,
Ezzy Something to be overcome. So of the four astronauts with the United Arab Emirates, you’re the only female astronaut and you’re the first female astronaut. Did you find that your gender affected your recruitment or your training in any way?
Noura No, I believe that everyone was given the same opportunity and chance because for you to select people to represent what you’re working on, you wouldn’t just pick anyone based on their gender or based on their last name or based on who you know, because you have to make sure that that person is good enough for that role or that person is capable of achieving what you expect of them. So every person should strive to be a better version of themselves. And that’s not achieved with comparing yourself to others, but it’s comparing yourself to yourself regardless of what gender you are, what nationality you are or. What your background is.
Ezzy Mm hmm. And I know a lot of space agencies throughout the world sort of have an issue with trying to get females… Female space enthusiasts to help them progress in their careers. Are there a lot of other women in other areas of the Emirati space programme.
Noura So actually, one third of the applicants for the second batch were female, and I don’t know if you know about the Emirates Mars mission, but 34 percent of the team were women and 80 percent of the team scientists were women, as well. The chair of the UAE space agency and the Emirati minister of state for Advanced Sciences is actually a woman. Her name is Sarah Al Amiri, so there are a lot of women in the UAE space programme or in the space industry in the UAE.
Ezzy And what of the UAE goals with what they want to achieve in terms of human space flight in the coming years?
Noura So currently, the astronaut office at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre is aiming to build a sustainable and diverse team of highly competent Emirati astronauts that are fully qualified and equipped to take on any mission in the future because currently there are no set missions. But when you have a team ready, you will be able to instantly send them off to any type of mission that would come.
Ezzy Mm hmm. And is there any particular kind of mission that you would really, really like to get?
Noura I really, really, really like to make it to the moon. It’s what actually got me interested in space. It’s like the first memory I have of me wanting to be an astronaut, of me wanting to make it to the Moon and walk on the surface of the Moon. So, yeah, I’d really like to make it to the surface of the Moon.
Ezzy So you…
Noura And actually get to walk there
Ezzy Looking at the Artemis mission, perhaps.
Noura Yeah, most likely. I’d really like to be part of the Artemis mission.
Ezzy Well, it certainly sounds like if that’s your goal, you’re coming in at the right time. So hopefully you’ll get to experience that. You kind of touched on it earlier. But one of the big parts of an astronaut’s job is that… Every time I’ve spoken to an astronaut in the past, they’ve said they felt this kind of responsibility. You’re not just going in for space for you or even your country. You’re going for the whole world. And it’s about inspiring and educating people. So do you have any goals in that regard about what you would like to achieve back here on Earth?
Noura I think I’d like to help feed that hunger for exploration and mystery solving. It’s what got me interested in space in the first place that drives to ask questions and want to know why a certain thing is a certain way or why does it work like this? Yeah, that I think that aspect I’d like to feed that aspect that’s in people or in the human race in general,
Ezzy so if there’s anybody who’s listening to this conversation and also wanting to become an astronaut at some point in the future, what would be your best piece of advice to them?
Noura I guess never give up on it, like even if it seems impossible at that point, just keep working towards your goal, look for opportunities, even if they’re small, just take them. And if you can’t find opportunities, then create them for yourself. Like, it’s it’s pretty easy at this point for you to build connexions with people. And those connexions really can open a lot of doors for you. And through those connexions, you’ll be able to open open up new opportunities for yourself. So if you keep working towards what you want to achieve, you will get there one day.
Ezzy Well, that is a lovely sentiment to end on. So thank you very much, Noura, for taking the time out of your day to talk to us.
Noura Thank you for having me. Thank you.