One Giant Leap for Womankind

Successful women in space science serve as proof of existence for young girls looking to enter the field.

Shaikha Al Falasi builds homes to be cost efficient, environmentally-friendly and sustainable. Although based in Dubai she builds them with the intention of helping all of humanity and solving some of our biggest problems. She envisions these homes as the future household for everyone on earth today, but some of her design elements are intended for the explorers inhabiting Mars tomorrow. 

Contact with our galactic neighbors has been a goal for generations now. Corralling a nation behind such an ambitious goal has been an effective tool of state building since John F Kennedy made the bold statement that the US was going to the moon well before scientists at NASA even thought it was possible. Almost half a century later Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, has made a similar claim but has taken it a little further: to not only put a human on Mars, but to colonize it.

Some questioned the reasons behind such an ambitious goal, especially one that was so inconceivably forward-looking that very few people on earth would even live to see it. The aim was 2117, but the effect was immediate: to push forth the country into aiming for unknown heights and to give hope to a young nation.

Today those effects are realized in people like Shaikha. A civil engineer by education who was inspired by Dubai’s urban transformation, she attended NYU Abu Dhabi with the intention of aiding her city’s industrial endeavor. But shortly after graduating she was contacted by the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center for a job that was not only outside her comfort zone but on an entirely different planet.

“I started by thinking about building things on earth, but the more I looked at it, the more I started thinking about building on Mars. Why not? The same challenges we’re working on for earth that can be formulated for space, and vice versa,” she said.

A prime example of those challenges happens to be a timely one. The need to cut down on fossil fuels consumption is more pertinent than ever before. Shaikha and her team worked on developing a sustainable home. The engineering of the home cuts fossil fuel emissions on earth, but beyond that it serves as the initial blueprint for how humans will source energy on the red planet.  

Reaching these heights in engineering was not an easy task for the Emirati woman. She was repeatedly questioned over her decision to pursue a career in space science by people who seemingly thought it was an exercise in futility. That line of questioning continued as she worked on the country’s mission to Mars.

But when Shaikha doubted herself, she drew inspiration from her city and the leadership that was able to transform Dubai from a port town to the international hub it is today. 

The Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft launches with Expedition 61 crewmembers Jessica Meir of NASA, Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos and spaceflight participant Hazzaa Ali Almansoori of the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

This sort of steadfastness and confidence in her decision to pursue the path less taken resonates with Ingyin Zaw, associate professor of physics. Although being from an entirely different culture, she experienced much of the same as many Emirati women going into space science. She came to NYUAD in part to work with Emirati women and help them overcome the challenges she faced as a bright young student from Burma enroute to Harvard.

“That’s part of the reason I came because when I was going off to college, one of my grandfather said ‘what are you doing, why are you sending her, why are you letting her go’ so there was resistance. I had to go through some of the things that some of our Emirati female researchers go through. The other grandfather, I had him at Harvard,” she said.

I had to go through some of the things that some of our Emirati female researchers go through.

Ingyin Zaw, associate professor of physics

Although Zaw herself concedes that she is either interested in the “very, very small or the very, very large things in space” she says that space exploration still captures her imagination. She suggests that events like the UAE sending the first Emirati in space can help inspire a nation and change perceptions on women entering certain professions.  

“You can change that slowly. On some level, proof of existence can help change that reluctance. To show that women can take care of themselves, and be independent adults and be successful. The more there are, the easier it will be for societies to accept,” she said.

Rasha Al Shehhi, an Emirati working at NYUAD’s Center for Space Science, is more proof of success for women in the field. She uses machine learning to better understand our universe. From detecting exomoons to forecasting sun flares that could help determine weather conditions months ahead of time, her work is based in a nascent science that could redefine our understanding of the world above.

“I am excited to learn about the earth, but now with the Emirati going to the ISS, I am so proud and inspired to continue my work,” she said.

But ultimately, as the young nation looked upon the space launch, Shaikha is filled with a sense of pride and reaffirmation of a life lesson that has led her to success.  

“Go out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself every day because if you don’t try to become a better version of yourself, you’ll never be where you want to be,” she said.