When Sara Sabry became the first African woman to travel into outer space in 2022, it was a seminal moment in a personal odyssey that she hopes will one day take her to another planet.
“I’m very hopeful that I’ll get to Mars,” she tells The CEO Magazine. “In fact, one of my life goals is to die there after I’ve finished my work here on Earth. I just want to retire and spend my last days there.”
The 30-year-old Egyptian engineer and fully trained astronaut was chosen from thousands of applicants by not-for-profit group Space for Humanity to take part in the voyage aboard New Shepard, the rocket built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
‘“I’m very hopeful that I’ll get to Mars. In fact, one of my life goals is to die there.”
The flight may only have lasted 10 minutes, but it had a profound effect on Sabry, who was also the first Arab woman in space. She intends to devote her life to opening up commercial space travel beyond billionaire tourists through her Deep Space Initiative (DSI), a global community of researchers and educators advocating for “a pathway for all to explore the universe”.
Her senior team includes a NASA engineer, space architect and a lawyer specializing in interplanetary law.
“Seeing Earth from space made me feel a strong responsibility towards protecting it,” she remembers. “The atmosphere is so thin, yet it’s the only thing protecting us from the blackness of space.
“I was in this environment that’s basically trying to kill me, but it was the first time in my life that I felt really at home. I understood then why I have to explore it.”
A world away
But boldly going to the final frontier wasn’t a childhood dream for one very good reason.
“Growing up in Egypt, it wasn’t something we were allowed to think about,” she said, shortly after addressing last year’s Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Australia, an annual gathering of influential business leaders and keynote speakers.
“We weren’t exposed to the field at all and never watched rocket launches. No-one had ambitions to be an astronaut because it wasn’t something that Egyptians did.”
After completing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, she worked on new techniques for robotic surgery, but soon had an epiphany that changed her life.
“I had an existential crisis as there were so many questions about everything around us, but no-one seemed to have answers. One thing led to another, and I realized that to get those answers about the origins and future of humanity, we should look into astrophysics and the exploration of other worlds.
“No-one had ambitions to be an astronaut because it wasn’t something that Egyptians did.”
“The universe is so vast and humanity so insignificant. How I rationalize it is that we need to venture farther, even beyond our solar system to understand more. Humanity must become multiplanetary.”
And she’s wasting no time in her pursuit of knowledge. The DSI currently has more than 200 members overseeing 32 research projects in areas including galactic transportation, cardiovascular health in space and construction techniques.
Sabry herself is doing a PhD on sustainable spacesuits for use on other planets, and hopes her work will help her get back into space. But she admits it won’t be easy.
“I’ve seen how inaccessible the industry is for people like me who aren’t United States citizens or European. There are laws stating that we’re not even allowed to apply for jobs in those fields, which doesn’t make sense and is why I started the DSI.
“International collaboration will enable deep space exploration and ensure our future. It will take centuries to happen, but it needs to happen because it’s the direction in which humanity needs to go.”
To the stars
And our curiosity shouldn’t be restricted to planets circling our sun.
“We understand a lot about the solar system, but what about other solar systems? We won’t be able to get all the answers by just being here.”
She sees her biggest opportunity in the rapidly expanding sector of commercial space travel.
“There will be more international organizations sending people to work and live in space. Blue Origin is working on a space station, so they’ll need lots of people. SpaceX too is training astronauts for different types of research while Access.Space [an organization helping smaller companies launch satellites] is opening doors for people from countries that don’t put humans into space.”
But it’s her dream of journeying to the red planet that she cherishes the most.
“I think it’s very possible that humans will get there within my lifetime, but it’s in the future, and there is so much I still have to do here for climate change, human rights and providing access to space for others before I can go,” she says.
“I’m not suicidal – I don’t want to just go there to die! But I do believe that by sharing my experiences I can encourage young Egyptians to pursue education and change the perception of women in the Arab world.”