Loay Elbasyouni gestures during an interview. AP
An electronics engineer from Gaza, Loay Elbasyouni, had worked with the Nasa team that made history this month by launching an experimental helicopter from the surface of Mars.
But he says an expedition to his hometown in the Gaza Strip, where posters celebrate his achievement, feels even farther away because of restrictions. “When you deal with electrons and technology, you can calculate things and know their path,” he said in a video interview from his home in Los Angeles. “When you deal with people and politics, you don’t know where things can go.”
The Mars Ingenuity helicopter photographs its shadow with its black-and-white navigation camera. AP
The 42-year-old has himself made an astonishing journey from the hardscrabble town of Beit Hanoun near the heavily-guarded Israeli frontier to the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he worked as a contractor helping design the Ingenuity helicopter.
He left Gaza in 1998 to study in the United States and has only returned once, for a brief visit in 2000 prior to the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, late that year. Elbasyouni says Israeli military tanks bulldozed his father’s fruit orchards on four occasions.
As Gaza weathered one crisis after another, Elbasyouni pursued his studies in the US. He struggled to afford tuition at the University of Kentucky, especially after the family farm was bulldozed. At one point he said he worked more than 90 hours a week at a Subway sandwich shop to make ends meet. He eventually transferred to the University of Louisville, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.
Abdelwahab Elbasyouni (uncle) stands on the porch of the house decorated in accolades to Loay Elbasyouni in Beit Hanoun. AP
In 2012, he was hired by a technology company that was developing electric aircraft. Two years later, the company was contracted by Nasa for the Mars helicopter project, and Elbasyouni was promoted to lead electronics engineer.
He spent six years working alongside other Nasa scientists to develop the helicopter’s propulsion system, its controller and other key components.
The robotic helicopter he developed hitched a ride to Mars on the Perseverance rover, which was launched into space on a rocket in July. He said his feelings were “indescribable” when he watched it touch down on the surface of the red planet in February.
It was a triumph hailed as a Wright brothers moment in the history of flight. Since then, Elbasyouni has done numerous TV interviews with Western and Arab media and become a hometown hero in Beit Hanoun. But he says he's unlikely to visit anytime soon because of the travel restrictions.
He says his father, who retired as a surgeon in 2012 and now lives in Germany, visited Gaza via Egypt in 2019 and was stuck there for seven months before leaving through Israel.
This file photo shows a full-scale model of the Ingenuity helicopter displayed for the media at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. AP
Elbasyouni points out that most Americans, including space engineers, only get two or three weeks off a year. "If you go (to Gaza), you may get stuck and lose your job," he said.
The restrictions on all sides have been tightened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic but long predate it.
Despite the political situation, Elbasyouni says there are still opportunities for Palestinian entrepreneurs and innovators, even in Gaza, and he hopes that he can provide inspiration for young Palestinians.
"Being part of this project that serves humanity is a source of huge pride,” he said.
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