When 27-year-old Akram Abdellatif was a child, he told his parents he would grow up to be an astronaut, who responded with polite smiles that it was not really possible. However, that tiny voice inside his heart refused to let go of that dream but Abdellatif never imagined he would be the first Egyptian candidate to travel to space with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
As the child who was fond of space, fascinated that there are mysterious worlds, as he grew up, he wanted to work at the space field. He had doubts when everyone was telling him about how unrealistic his dream was and he almost changed his mind.
“Such dreams are not acceptable in Egypt, you have to be what people expect you to be,” Abdellatif said. “It was either become a doctor or an engineer.” Growing up in a public school made the education process difficult for him but he managed to join the School of Engineering at the German University in Cairo (GUC) to specialise in communications engineering.
He travelled to Germany for his masters degree and his dream was revived when he got an internship at DLR, the German Aerospace Centre, after many failed attempts. “I was unqualified to join the team at first,” he said.
“For six months I kept studying about space academically, all of my free time was spent on gaining as much knowledge as I could.”
While he was studying, he found out only US or European citizens were able to join NASA; otherwise he could not find a way to be a member of their team.
“I knew my nationality would make things difficult, so I made sure everything else was right,” he said.
He pursued two masters degrees related to the field of astronomy and is currently working on his PhD, supervised by TUM’s Institute of Flight System Dynamics. Abdellatif learned how to fly and dive to complete all the essentials to increase his chances of joining NASA. For two years, he made sure he met all the requirements, but was still unsure if it was enough for him to join.
“This was my absolute dream and it was not impossible as everyone told me. Somehow, I was achieving it throughout the process of education,” he said. He joined the NGO Astronauts 4 Hire, a non-profit organisation approved by NASA that trains individuals for trips into space without nationality requirements.
His hard work paid off when he got accepted at the PoSSUM research programme, a scientific mission of four training modules supported by NASA for advanced climate research. “I met all of the other required qualifications. I would spend all of my time after work and on weekends training with the support of my wife,” Abdellatif said.
If he is successfully elected, out of the many others from several countries, by the end of the training, he will get the chance to fly over 100 km into the sky and to be the first Egyptian to take samples from the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Abdellatif believes staying in Egypt would have made his process harder and longer.
“We have a problem in the education system and the general social atmosphere. People draw you a path that you have to walk through no matter what, and that kills all forms of creativity,” he said.
When Egyptians travel abroad, they are mostly encouraged to be creative and follow their dreams, which increases their level of productivity and their achievements. The moment people change their way of thinking, from showing off their financial achievements to talking about gained and delivered knowledge, Egypt will witness a real change, Abdellatif said.
He is still working hard during training to be chosen among the astronauts to travel to space. He knows he will have to make more effort in his future but he believes it will be worth it to follow his dream; it is the most significant achievement anyone would accomplish in their life.
“I know I still have a lot more to do but I should not forget to enjoy the significant moment I will look down at the Earth from above,” he said.