Emirati astronaut Nora Al Matrooshi: First Arab 'space girl' set for orbital mission


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Dubai: An Arab woman is on the cusp of joining an elite group of pioneers in space exploration. On Saturday (April 10, 2021), the UAE announced Nora Al Matrooshi, a 27-year-old Emirati engineer, as one for the country’s two new astronauts. She was chosen alongside Mohammed Al Mulla, 33, a pilot.

Al Matrooshi is the first female Arab astronaut. There had been only 65 women in space. She was chosen from over 4,000 candidates to be trained for future exploration missions. The two form the second batch of the UAE Astronaut Programme. The announcement was made by His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai on Twitter.

Q: How many astronauts does the UAE have?

Four. Al Matrooshi and Al Mulla join astronauts Hazzaa Al Mansoori and Sultan Al Neyadi to form a four-member team under the UAE Astronaut Programme. They serve under the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), whose vision is to usher in the UAE to become one of the leading space-exploring nations through its National Space Programme.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal / Gulf News

Q: What happens next?

After selection, the new UAE astronauts will train for at least three years before a possible selection for a future mission. Al Matrooshi and Al Mulla will begin training in the UAE — before moving on to a 30-month course at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre (JSC) in Houston, Texas, which starts later this year. They will then join the “2021 Nasa Astronaut Candidate Class”, part of a joint strategic agreement between the UAE and the US.

Q: What would their training cover?

They will undergo spacewalk training, language training (especially Russian), and systems training on board the International Space Station (ISS).

The two new astronauts will be trained in the following:

  • Human spaceflight
  • Research and space flight control
  • Carrying out missions in low-earth orbit
  • Spacewalk training
  • Systems training on the International Space Station (ISS)
  • Language training (especially Russian)

They will train using the Human Exploration Research Analog, a unique three-story habitat designed to serve as an “analog” for isolation, confinement, and remote conditions in exploration scenarios.

Under the training programme, the astronauts will be trained to manage various missions on the ISS, including simulated spacewalks and long-duration stay, along with training in major systems, robotics, extravehicular activity, T-38 jet courses, water and land survival, Russian language skills and theoretical training.

Their specific training, however, depends on the type of mission they would perform in space.

Q: What mission will be given them?

Following the extensive training for the next space mission, the astronauts would then undergo specific training for that expedition. This would typically run for 6 to 12 months. Hazza Al Mansouri, 37, the first Emirati in space, and reserve astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, 39, have already completed six months of training at the JSC.

Q: Who is Nora Al Matrooshi?

Al Matrooshi, born in 1993, holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UAE University. Al Matrooshi is a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She has a proven record of volunteer work and excellence in the scientific field and she ranked first in the UAE for the 2011 International Mathematical Olympiad.

She worked as an engineer at the National Petroleum Construction Co. and was also the vice president of the Youth Council for three consecutive years at the company.

Al Matrooshi’s passion for space started at a young age. She said she enjoyed going to stargazing events. “Do what makes you happy” is her motto. Salem Al Marri, head of the astronaut programme at MBRSC, said Al Matrooshi has a long and promising career ahead of her.

Q: Why is Nora Al Matrooshi’s selection historic for the Arab world?

She is the Arab world’s first woman astronaut, chosen alongside pilot Mohammed Al Mulla out of 4,305 applicants after going through rigorous testing process. The UAE is investing heavily in space. The country has also invested in aviation, and is already a manufacturer of advanced aircraft parts supplying commercial planemakers like Boeing and Airbus.

Dh 22

the amount of money earmarked by UAE for its space program, starting with the creation of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in 2014

The country has already earmarked Dh22 billion since the MBRSC was established in 2014 for its space program. Al Matrooshi and Mohammed Al Mulla are expected to consolidate their country’s position in the upcoming space missions.

The Boeing Blue suit, as worn by Nasa astronaut Chris Ferguson.
Image Credit: Boeing

Earlier this year, on February 9, 2021, the UAE Hope Probe successfully entered Mars’ orbit, thus making the country now only the fifth nation or entity in the world to reach the Red Planet.

Q: How many women have flown in space?

65. As of March 2021, 65 women have flown in space, including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists, and space station participants. The first woman in space was Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who flew on Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride, flew aboard the Space Shuttle STS-7 in June of 1983.


As of March 2021, 65 women have flown in space, including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists, and space station participants.

Q: How many people have travelled in space?

More than 560. As of January 2018, people from 37 countries have traveled in space. 553 people have reached Earth orbit. 556 have reached the altitude of space according to the FAI definition of the boundary of space, and 562 people have reached the altitude of space according to the American definition.

Q: Has anyone ever died in space?

Yes, a total of 18 people have lost their lives either while in space or in preparation for a space mission, in four separate incidents, according to New Scientist.

Q: Astronaut suit: What is it made of? Who makes them?

The Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU, (left) and the Orion Crew Survival Suit being revealed in 2019. File photo.
Image Credit: Nasa

The design of astronaut suits have changed over the years. The earlier ones used were bulky. They are mostly composed of urethane-coated nylon. There’s a restraining layer of Dacron and an outer thermal garment composed of Neoprene-coated nylon. It also has five layers of aluminised Mylar and a fabric surface layer composed of Teflon, Kevlar, and Nomex.

Hard-shell suits are usually made of metal or composite materials. Spacesuits do not use fabric for joints. Hard suits joints use ball bearings.

The Boeing Blue suits are about 40% lighter than earlier generations of spacesuits worn by American astronauts — and more flexible.

The spacesuits worn by astronauts for the SpaceX Crew Dragon mission, on the other hand, is a further iteration of earlier designs. The futuristic flight suits worn by Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken included: 3D printed helmets, and the gloves are touchscreen-sensitive.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (foreground) and Bob Behnken give a thumbs up from inside the Crew Dragon capsule ahead of the Demo-2 launch on May 30, 2020. (Image credit: SpaceX/Twitter)
Image Credit: Nasa

Their primary purpose remains the same: protect crew members from depressurisation, where air is lost from the capsule. The suits also ensure astronauts have sufficient oxygen and regulate their temperature. A communications link and breathable air are provided via a single “umbilical” cable in the seat that plugs in to the suit.

Nasa astronauts Doug Hurley (foreground) and Bob Behnken give a thumbs up from inside the Crew Dragon capsule ahead of the Demo-2 launch on May 30, 2020. The SpaceX ‘Starman’ futuristic flight suits are a world away from the bulky orange shuttle flight suits. The helmets are 3D-printed and the gloves are touchscreen-sensitive.
Image Credit: SpaceX/Twitter

Q: Is there a woman in space at the moment?

Yes, Dr Kate Rubins is a viral disease expert and has spent more than 115 days in space. She has a PhD in cancer biology from Stanford. It’s not her first space mission. During her first ISS mission in 2016, the virologist became the first human to ever sequence DNA in orbit. Her pioneering efforts are a “game changer” for health research on Earth and in space.

Nasa said that one day, it may be used as a tool to help us study alien lifeforms). Her second spaceflight kicked off on October 14, 2020. She’s currently part of a team conducting research in technology development, Earth science, biology, human research. She is expected to fly back to Earth on board the Soyuz capsule scheduled to parachute to a landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan at on April 17, 2021 after a 185-day mission.

Q: What’s the idea behind DNA sequencing in space?

In 2016, DNA was successfully sequenced in microgravity for the first time ever. It formed part of the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment performed by Nasa astronaut Kate Rubins aboard the International Space Station (ISS). “The ability to sequence the DNA of living organisms in space opens a whole new world of scientific and medical possibilities. Scientists consider it a game changer,” Nasa said.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the instructions each cell in an organism on Earth needs to live. These instructions are represented by the letters A, G, C and T, which stand for the four chemical bases of DNA, adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. Both the number and arrangement of these bases differ among organisms, so their order — or sequence — can be used to identify a specific organism.

The ability to sequence DNA in space demonstrated, for the first time, that DNA sequencing is possible in an orbiting spacecraft. As such, astronauts could diagnose an illness, or identify microbes growing in the International Space Station and determine whether or not they represent a health threat.

Image Credit: Nasa

A space-based DNA sequencer would be an important tool to help protect astronaut health during long duration missions on the journey to Mars, and future explorers could also potentially use the technology to identify DNA-based life forms beyond Earth.

Hope Probe entered Mars’ orbit on February 9, 2021. It was followed by China’s Tianwen-1 dual orbiter-rover which arrived in Mars on February 10, 2021. Nasa’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18. All three Mars missions were launched in July 2020. The Hope Probe has travelled over 435 million kilometres to Mars after liftoff from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre in July 2020.


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