First Arab Woman in NASA Aims for the Moon

Nora AlMatrooshi has fulfilled her childhood dream of space travel by becoming the first Arab woman to graduate from NASA’s training program. She is now eligible for NASA missions to the International Space Station (ISS), Artemis launches to the Moon and, if all goes well, to even fly to Mars.

A lifelong passion for space

AlMatrooshi, 30, remembers an elementary school lesson about space in which her teacher simulated a trip to the lunar surface, complete with arts-and-crafts spacesuits and a tent for a rocket ship.

“We got out of the tent, and we saw that she had turned off the lights in our classroom. She had everything covered in gray cloth, and she was telling us that we were on the surface of the Moon,” AlMatrooshi told AFP.

“That day resonated with me, and it stuck with me. And I remember thinking, ‘This is amazing. I actually want to do this for real, I want to actually get to the surface of the Moon.’ And that’s when it all started,” she recalled, dressed in a blue flight suit embroidered with her name and the UAE flag.

AlMatrooshi, a mechanical engineer by training who has worked in the oil industry, was one of two astronaut candidates chosen by the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA) in 2021 to enroll in a training program with US space agency NASA.

A rigorous training program

After two years of hard work — including practice spacewalks — AlMatrooshi, her fellow Emirati Mohammad AlMulla and 10 others in their training class are fully qualified astronauts.

The group, known as “The Flies,” are now eligible for NASA missions to the International Space Station (ISS), Artemis launches to the Moon and, if all goes well, to even fly to Mars.

The UAESA announced earlier this year plans to build the airlock — a specialized doorway — for Gateway, the space station in development to someday orbit the Moon.

“I want to push humanity further than it’s ever been before. I want humanity to go back to the Moon, and I want humanity to go further beyond the Moon,” AlMatrooshi said.

“And I want to be part of that journey.”

A pioneer for Arab women

Though AlMatrooshi is the first to graduate from NASA, other Arab women have already participated in private space missions, including Saudi biomedical researcher Rayyanah Barnawi, who flew with Axiom Space to the ISS last year, and Egyptian-Lebanese engineer Sara Sabry, one of the crew on a 2022 Blue Origin suborbital flight.

AlMatrooshi, who wears a hijab as part of her Muslim faith, explained that NASA developed a strategy to allow her to keep her hair covered while donning the agency’s iconic white space suit and helmet, known officially as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU.

“Once you get into the EMU you put on a (communications) cap (fitted with microphones and speakers), which… covers your hair,” she said.

She hopes that her achievements will inspire other young Arab women to pursue their dreams of space exploration.

“I want them to know that nothing is impossible. If you have a passion for something, if you have a goal that you want to achieve, you can achieve it,” she said.

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