Sara Sabry: The astronaut making space travel more accessible

26 Jul 2023

Image: Sara Sabry

Sara Sabry wants to enable people from all over the world to explore deep space, while also looking after the wellbeing of astronauts.

When Sara Sabry took part in the Blue Origin NS-22 mission in August last year, she became the first Egyptian person and the first Arab woman in space – and she hadn’t yet turned 30.

She spoke to about her experience while in Ireland earlier this year for the 2023 Dublin Tech Summit.

Sabry said going to space was a lot more profound than she thought it was going to be. “There’s a term called ‘the overview effect’, which a lot of astronauts who come back from space talk about, how their perspectives of the world have changed, how seeing the thin blue line gave them this new understanding of how fragile Earth is.

“I think for me, because of my background, my perspective is very different [because] usually the majority of astronauts are from the West,” she said.

Sabry added that this shift in mindset for other astronauts can often help them to understand how borderless the world truly is. But for her, who had already been working on this, it just enforced her beliefs further.

“It gave me another understanding that we need to be sending more people to space to see that themselves because where your passport is from dictates a lot of things in your life, which makes no sense. It’s just a piece of paper, it’s just where you were born. It doesn’t make sense that that should dictate what opportunities you get and what type of life you have.”

Sabry always had a passion for engineering. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the American University in Cairo and went on to do a master’s degree in biomedical engineering in Italy.

Now, she’s working towards a PhD in aerospace sciences in the US where she is conducting research on the engineering of the next generation of planetary spacesuits at the NASA-funded Human Spaceflight Lab.

‘The spacesuit that we have now is not ready at all for being able to work on the surface of the moon and Mars’

Ill-designed spacesuits made headlines in 2019 when a historic all-woman spacewalk onboard the International Space Station was cancelled due to a lack of proper-fitting suits.

But Sabry said that is just one example of the problems that come from current spacesuit designs. “Honestly, they were not designed really with humans in mind,” she said. “A lot of astronauts come back needing to have shoulder surgery.”

She also said that there will need to be a lot more properly designed suits to travel to and work on the moon and Mars in the coming decades. “The spacesuit that we have now is not ready at all for being able to work on the surface of the moon and Mars. So, it is going to work in a sense where it’s going to keep the astronaut alive, but to pick up a tool from the ground … it’s really difficult for them to stand up.”

Sabry wants to help design spacesuits that are not only better equipped to help astronauts avoid injury, but also design exoskeletons or other accessories so that “we are able to really thrive when working on the moon and Mars”.

“With my background in mechanical engineering, electronics and biomedical engineering, I thought that I could be really useful in helping with spacesuits because it really needs these two backgrounds.”

Further accessibility

As if going into space and working on a PhD to improve spacesuits wasn’t enough, Sabry is also an entrepreneur who founded the Deep Space Initiative in 2021, a non-profit organisation aimed at expanding accessibility to space through opportunities and education.

“When I started getting into the space field, it was so difficult for me to apply to any positions that I was qualified for just because of my passport. So, we’re also working on the legal side, trying to educate [US] Congress about why it’s important to be able to hire internationals or how important it is to have international collaboration between the whole world because when we’re talking about space, we really need as much help as we can get.”

Sabry spoke about the challenges and barriers that are in place when it comes to space travel, particularly in the US. She said that because most space application technologies fall under the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), it restricts information going outside the US, which in turn hinders international space collaboration.

“What comes with that also is companies in the US have so many job openings, SpaceX, Blue Origin, all of those, that they cannot hire, they don’t have enough people to hire. So, there’s a big problem here where there’s a lot of qualified people around the world who are just unable to apply to those and the US need people to work on these things, but they’re unable to hire them just because of the export control laws,” she said.

“That’s what I have faced personally, where I am qualified to be hired for a specific job, but even if Blue Origin wants to hire me, they can’t. They’re just unable to because of the law, which doesn’t really make sense at all because we’re not working on military applications. We’re working on science. A spacesuit is not a military weapon.”

Being the first in a number of categories can quickly turn someone like Sabry into a role model and someone who is responsible to truly represent in the best way possible.

She said that while this is a huge responsibility, she’s happy to take that on. “It’s such a big thing that you never really think that you’re going to be … so it was difficult at the beginning for me to accept that I was this person but I think I’m a lot more at peace with the fact that I do have to do this.”

The road less travelled

One of the most striking things about Sabry is that she never did anything with the goal of becoming an astronaut because that was simply something that was not on her radar as a possibility growing up.

“For me, I’ve always done everything to solve problems,” she said. “I got into the space field for the same reason because for me, I was understanding so much and when it came to astrophysics, the more you try to understand it, the more you have questions, and that drove me really crazy. I have this tendency to be consumed by ideas, to be consumed by these problem, that I really can’t let it go.”

With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that her advice to younger people looking to the stars thinking about going to space is to dream, and dream big, but make sure it’s by doing something you want to do.

“I get a lot of questions from younger people, who say ‘what can I do [to go to space]?’ And then they could choose stuff that does not interest them, that they’re not passionate about,” she said.

“You need to enjoy what you do. So, you need to find your passion, and then going into space is going to come anyway no matter what it is that you do, because we need all of the different fields in the world.

“So, my advice would be not to worry about entering into a specific thing just to become an astronaut, but do what you love. Be really good at that. And then you will get there eventually.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic