/ 3 June 2024

Sara Sabry beat doubters to become Africa’s first female astronaut and space pioneer

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Sara Sabry is the founder and executive director of the Deep Space Initiative (DSI), a non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing accessibility and opportunity in the space field. Photo supplied

Sara Sabry is a woman of many firsts: the first Egyptian astronaut, the first Arab and first  African woman to go to space.

When she launched to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on 4 August 2022,  Sabry knew that she wasn’t flying to space alone — she was taking her home country and the African continent with her on her voyage to the stars.

As a young woman, though, venturing to space was not something she even considered. “Growing up in Egypt, I was not really exposed to the space field,” said Sabry.

“We never watched rocket launches, nor did we have astronauts from the region that we could relate to, and think, ‘Oh, I want to be [like] that when I grow up.’”

The 31-year-old mechanical and biomedical engineer was delivering an address at GITEX Africa, the largest tech and start-up show on the continent, which was held in Marrakesh, Morocco, last week. 

Sabry is the founder and executive director of the Deep Space Initiative (DSI), a non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing accessibility and opportunity in the space field, while enabling deep space exploration for all humankind.

Tearing down barriers 

She recounted how, as a child, she was propelled by an insatiable curiosity to discover how things work. As a three-year-old, her parents would give her remotes to put back together. 

Studying engineering was a natural fit “just because I was extremely curious about how things work”. However, as an Egyptian woman, that meant challenging deeply-held stereotypes. 

“I was told not to study engineering because it would be too hard for me. If I was a boy, I would not have been told that, right? Why would it be hard for me? I was told, with biomedical engineering, that I would not have opportunities in my own country and, ‘Why am I doing it, if I’m not going to be able to do anything with it?’”

Sabry has made it her mission to help others who have been on the receiving end of similar negative comments to “be able to take this energy, internalise it and use it to drive them forward”.

“Being introduced to the space field, particularly, you can imagine what people thought of that; that it’s just a waste of time … In our region, you’re always told that, as a woman, you’re going to get married and depend on someone else, so you’re not taken as seriously as you would have been if you were a man.”

This matters deeply, said Sabry, who is a PhD student in aerospace sciences and is conducting research at the Nasa-funded Human Spaceflight Lab. “It’s very detrimental to what you’re trying to achieve because it’s an impossibility — trying to chase something that’s so impossible that even no man in your region or your country has done. 

“To think that, as a woman, you’re trying to do something no man has ever done before you adds an extra challenge and shows that a woman can do it. It’s a very empowering thing to achieve something that hasn’t been done before.”


In her biomedical engineering work, Sabry was keenly interested in using engineering solutions for the human body, in “trying to understand how we can solve some of the medical issues we have using engineering because it’s so cool to me. I really like challenging myself,” she said. 

Her work has spanned various fields, including mechatronics, robotic surgery, stem cell development, augmented reality, Formula Three car design and bioastronautics. 

“I’ve done things that were so outside my comfort zone, and I loved pushing myself in that way, where it seems very difficult from the outside. But when you break it into smaller things, and try to understand bits and pieces of it, it’s not that intimidating.”

It was while working at a start-up in Berlin in Germany that she had an epiphany. “I was going through an existential crisis and I had a lot of questions and that led me to the space field. Honestly, it started from Brief Answers to the Big Questions.

“That kind of opened my mind a little bit to, ‘Wait, but there’s a lot that we can do with … our current knowledge to understand our origins and the future of humanity.’ That led me to try to use my skills, my understanding of what we know, and trying to understand how we can make humanity multi-planetary.”


Sabry was selected by Space for Humanity as the world’s second sponsored Citizen Astronaut, over thousands of applicants from across the world. Her mission was to analyse the Overview Effect, and bring that back to Earth. This refers to the cognitive shift in awareness that occurs when a person looks down on Earth from space.

While the sub-orbital flight was over within minutes, it had an “extremely profound” effect on her. “When you’re in the field, you always hear astronauts talk about their experience, how it’s changed them, how when you see this very thin blue line [of the atmosphere] and how that completely protects the Earth from the blackness of space. It just changes the way you see everything.”

As an engineer, she is “sceptical of many things, so I didn’t know how much that was going to affect me,” she said. “A lot of astronauts come back and say that not seeing lines on a map shifted their perspective but, being from this region, I’ve always known that. 

“I founded a whole company that was fighting against that, so I have this really huge understanding of how lines on a map do really indicate what you can and can’t do in the world. It’s something that I have been trying to fight my whole life.” 

Her mission to the final frontier was incredibly difficult for her parents at the beginning, she added. “I’m the first one in the country and the region to go [to space], so they had no one to relate to. It’s a big deal for your daughter to be sitting on a rocket and you’re signing away all those papers saying it’s not without risk. 

“Also, being the first in your country, even though there is a very incredible reason for why you’re doing that, for parents, they think, ‘Is it really worth risking your life?’ but they also understand a lot more now. I appreciate them standing by me for this … I think now people [in Egypt] believe a little bit more in the impossibility of things, so when I tell them I’m going to do something now, they don’t doubt it,” she grinned. 

Deep Space Initiative

Sabry founded the Colorado-based Deep Space Initiative with the aim of increasing accessibility and opportunity in space for all. The inspiration for its inception came from the “truth that the universe belongs to the entire human race, and should not be limited to the select few”.

Its goal is to establish a community where scientists, engineers, lawyers and designers “can work together to address humanity’s most difficult problems together, proving that borders can be erased”. Among its staff are a former human research programme chief scientist, a former Nasa space architect and a space lawyer.

“Growing up, the space field was just not something we could have ever got involved in. It was so inaccessible and remains extremely inaccessible,” she said. “If you look at the demographics of the people who are now in the space field, there’s a few more women, but, in a lot of my meetings, I’m still the only woman there and that’s been the case for most of my career.” 

Referring to “passport privilege”, she told how she would never have had the opportunity to access the space field “if it wasn’t for me going after and creating those opportunities”. 

“They just don’t exist and, even if they do exist, because of your passport, you can’t really work there and because there are laws that exist that make it that way. Companies in the United States cannot hire foreign nationals just because of the laws around space technologies. At the DSI, we’re trying to address this by providing opportunities in research and education.”

Many people, she said, see Earth and space as separate, and believe that spending billions of dollars in the space field is wasteful, “when we have other issues on Earth”. But this was not the case.  

“They’re both related and we need to be working on that, so it’s not the idea of ‘Oh, we’re just going to go and live on a different planet and leave the rest on Earth,’ we are going to space for Earth and, the company that sent me to space, that’s exactly their slogan: Space for Earth. A lot of what we do really directly benefits life on Earth.”

In the near future, Sabry hopes to spend some time on the International Space Station. “We’re hosting a space camp in Egypt this year for the first time for Egyptians and for people from all over, so that’s a new, exciting thing that Egyptians are going to be able to experience space for the first time — just on Earth. I’m trying to do my best to bring Egyptians the opportunities that they deserve.”

*Sheree Bega’s trip to Morocco was sponsored by KAOUN International and GITEX Africa.