Against all odds - GulfToday

Against all odds

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Louay Elbasyouni.

While the UAE is the first Arab and Muslim country to send an orbiting probe to Mars to collect essential scientific data about its atmosphere, Gaza’s Louay Elbasyouni is the first Palestinian Muslim engineer to play a leading role in the effort to surveil and gather information from the surface of the Red Planet with a compact helicopter.

He is not the only Arab involved in the Mars project. Tunisian Muhammad Abid, deputy chief mechanical engineer, is a member of another team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the US National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA).  Moroccan engineer Kamal Oudrhiri, head of NASA’s Planetary Studies Department who has been with the agency for 20 years, worked on radio communications for entry into Mars orbit, descent, landing and surface operations. There are numerous other scientists with Arabic names involved in the Mars project.  

 The UAE’s vehicle is called “Amal,” Hope, ELBasyouni’s is named “Ingenuity.” One hundred and eighteen years after the Wright brothers made their first earthly flight at Kitty Hawk in the US state of North Carolina, Inginuity, which carried a piece of the Wright brothers’ rickety plane, became the first aircraft to fly over another planet. Elbasyuni told al-Jazeera the day the Ingenuity carried out its first flight was the “happiest day of my life.” During the seven-month journey to Mars, the helicopter was attached to Perseverance, a six-wheeled robot which landed on the planet on Feb. 18. A second instrument on board is a small machine that extracts and stores oxygen from Mars’ thin, 90 per cent carbon dioxide atmosphere. The third instrument of importance is a weather station.  According to NASA, the main goal of the on-going Mars mission is to search for ancient microbial life and investigate the planet’s geology and past climate with the aim of preparing the way for human exploration. While closely observing the performance of Ingenuity, Elbasyouni is busy on other projects.

 Elbasyouni was born in Germany where his parents, from Beit Hanoun, were based while his father studied medicine. When the boy was six, the family travelled home for a visit. Israel confiscated his father’s documents, leaving the couple and son stranded in the Strip where they had to cope with Israel’s hostile occupation. When he was in the fourth grade, UN schools closed after the eruption of the first Intifada, 1987-93, and Palestinian children were forced to home-school. Left largely to books and his own devices, Elbbasyouni was drawn to electronics.

 Although his father wanted him to become a surgeon, he insisted on studying electrical engineering and, after high school graduation, gained admission to the University of Kentucky in the US. He was able to take up the offer as the 1993 Oslo Accords had eased tensions between Palestinians and Israelis and the Palestinian Authority became established in both Gaza and the West Bank.  

 Elbasyouni’s last visit to Gaza was before the second Intifada in 2000-05 which led Israel to clamp down hard on Gaza and make it difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinians, to leave and enter the Strip, trapping the population in this poor, narrow piece of land along the Mediterranean. Elbasyouni has said it is easier for him to fly his helicopter on Mars than to enter Gaza.

 Once in the US, his life became “very hard” due to the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and lack of funds, which his father was unable to provide because Israel had bull-dozed the family’s olive plantations. He had to drop out of university to make enough money to complete his studies by working at five jobs. After a year, he transferred to the University of Louisville in Kentucky to complete to his studies for his BA and MA in computer engineering. Following graduation, he worked in various firms, getting practical experience. His break occurred in 2012 when he was hired by a public aerospace company researching electric aircraft and was drafted into NASA’s Mars programme where he was chosen to head the helicopter team. His job was to develop Ingenuity’s controls, wiring, and communications.

He and his team had to build a 1.8 kilogram helicopter with two blades that could fly in freezing temperatures over a planet with thin air, and one-third less than earth’s gravity. NASA says, “Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm – many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries and other components.”

 Elbasyouni told Britain’s Channel 4 news “For me as a kid I was almost dreaming to become an aerospace engineer, but I decided that it was not a thing for me because I figured Palestine doesn’t have a space programme, so it wasn’t an easy journey.”  He dubbed his journey from Gaza to the US “Mission Impossible” even though he accomplished this mission. He has been unable, however, to return for 20 years to visit his family. He stated, “It’s really hard to get into Gaza without putting my career at risk. If I go in there, I might get stuck” — like the two million Gazans who live there.

 “With the Mars situation it’s science that determines things, with science we can calculate everything and predict everything as much as we can, and we stick to our hopes and beliefs and our mathematical proof. But when it comes to situations of politics involving politics it depends on people’s opinions and that’s unpredictable,” he said.

 Middle East Monitor’s Eman Abusidu learned that Elbasyouni is accepted as a Palestinian from Gaza in his community. “My team is very multinational and we all accept each other despite the differences.” He contrasted his current situation to his time at university, after al-Qaeda’s strikes on the US, when he was attacked by drunken students while delivering a pizza. During that period, the US was a hostile place for Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who was seen as Arab or Muslim.

 He remains Palestinian and attached to Gaza. “I’m very active in our Palestinian cause. I’m a volunteer with several NGOs which help people in Palestine; in education and other fields, for example. During the military offensives against Gaza, I was on the front line of protests and I have even talked to the US Congress to help in any possible way”.

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