Lama Al-Oraiman, a winner of this year’s Emerging Space Leaders award, pushes for more space education in Kuwait, the development of a local space strategy, and the increased participation of women in the field.
Interest and investment in Gulf space exploration has been ramping up for several years. The United Arab Emirates Space Agency, for instance, was established in 2014 to boost the country’s role in the global space arena through research programs, technological advancement and training, and international partnerships. Similarly, the Saudi Space Commission was created in 2018 to develop a Saudi space strategy, enhance technological capacities, and empower local space sector innovation. Both countries’ strategies emphasize the development of national human capital with a focus on developing local expertise, while building the potential for commercial space exploration and uses of space technology in national security.
Kuwait was active in the space sector from the 1960s until the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Since the Gulf war, however, the Kuwaiti government still has not established a national space strategy or dedicated entity. Instead, the gap has been filled by youth-led initiatives, facilitated through international organizations, including Space Generation, and independent Kuwaiti startups, such as Orbital Space and Ignition, that are making significant headway in space exploration by propelling local interest and education in the field. To increase its involvement in space-related projects, Kuwait has been working toward collaborations with other countries, including the UAE, India, and China, and has participated in the Arab Space Cooperation Group.
AGSIW spoke to Lama Al-Oraiman, one of only 30 young individuals internationally awarded the prestigious Emerging Space Leaders grant, to learn more about her role in fostering a space-oriented community in Kuwait, the space research startup, Ignition, that she co-founded, and the challenges and opportunities that she sees in developing a space strategy for the country.
AGSIW: Tell us a bit about yourself and your academic background.
Lama: I’m 24 years old, and I’m interested in space science research and communication, as well as space politics and policies. I have been interested in space since I was a kid, specifically in the fact that the more questions we answer about space, the more questions we have in return, making us even more curious and more confused. Another reason that I became interested in the field is that, throughout my years studying in a governmental school, the curriculum did not mention anything related to space. It was just basic astronomy, and it even included Pluto as a planet! So, it wasn’t really the best source of information when it came to space and astronomy.
In Kuwait, specifically, we did not have any university program related to space, so I had to choose a major that’s the closest to the space sector, which is mechanical engineering. It teaches the basics that you can build upon: building satellites, rovers, lunar rovers, rockets, etc. I am still a student, I work with several international space organizations, and I’m a co-founder of Kuwait’s first and only space company, Ignition.
AGSIW: Tell us more about Ignition. What are some of its projects and programs?
Lama: We are four co-founders with a team of over 20 young people. We started as a nongovernmental group under the umbrella of the Mars Society. They gave us plenty of opportunities and international exposure, and then we diverted to become a private company. We’re currently collaborating with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences and The Scientific Center and other entities and universities, where we host workshops and lectures, speak about space in general, and try to spread the word on it. We also organize summer camps for kids to learn about lunar exploration, the history of space exploration, and space architecture. Many kids are really interested in that, so we’re trying our best to build interest and educate them, and not only young kids but also teenagers and high schoolers.
Our main focus as a startup is building a Martian habitat in Kuwait. Currently, we’re in the research phase. We believe that Kuwait has the perfect environment to simulate the environment of Mars if we construct a Martian analog habitat. With certain instruments to play with pressure and radiation levels, we could make the habitat as close as possible to the Martian environment. Since you can’t find this environment in, let’s say, Europe or Russia or the United States, we could have plenty of collaborators or partners, or people testing their instruments in our labs before sending them into space. We could host researchers, scientists, analog astronauts – or astronauts who stay on Earth – and even host research labs beyond the space sector.
AGSIW: How did you come to win the Emerging Space Leader award?
Lama: Every year, the International Astronautical Federation hosts the biggest space conference, called the International Astronautical Congress. You get to see representatives from NASA, the Russian Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, private agencies, and smaller nongovernmental entities. This year, for example, when it was hosted in Paris – that’s where I received the award – there were 9,400 people. One of the awards that the conference hands out is the Emerging Space Leaders grant award for people who are between 21 and 35 years old. In addition to your character and experience, the award also requires a research project. I wrote the paper “Kuwait joining the GCC Space Race: A local space strategy.” There were 400 people who applied for the award this year, and 30 of those were chosen as finalists. This year, I was the only Arab and for now I’m the only Kuwaiti who has gotten the award.
This award was really important for me because I do not have certain technical achievements in the space sector. For example, I can’t say that I graduated from aerospace engineering because I did not have this in Kuwait. So, to me, winning this award is a statement that I have been involved in the space sector for years – it’s international recognition and validation that I’ve been doing something good. I had to face a lot of problems throughout these years, like people looking down on me since I am a female, and I am young. It just felt like I can actually do something, and I can help other people achieve this.
AGSIW: What was the research you conducted for the award?
Lama: What I had in mind was that every single country in the Gulf Cooperation Council, except Kuwait, has a space program: Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. I am seeing a pattern where Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and even within the UAE, where there are two entities – the Emirati Space Agency and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre – are all competing. So, there is a GCC space race. Even though it sounds competitive, since the term “space race” was used during the Cold War between the USSR and the U.S., I believe that the words “space race” mean cooperation in this day and age. NASA, for example, has more than 12 countries participating in it, and the European Space Agency has a huge number of countries within it. So, it’s more about collaboration and cooperation.
I wanted to give Kuwait a strategy for building a space program. I specifically considered Kuwait’s specialty, which is in developing drilling technologies used in oil fields – that’s how we can contribute to space. We need drilling in the space sector because NASA’s Artemis Mission is going to the moon within the next year and will require drilling for collecting samples. It’s also important for drilling asteroids because minerals found on asteroids are very expensive on Earth and they’re very important, but we do not get them as richly as we find them on asteroids. So, this technology is really important to the space sector, and I believe that as a country we can bring in a lot of knowledge when it comes to learning. So, I was studying Kuwait’s potential in joining the space industry and then speaking about the infrastructure and how we can shape it to prepare it for a space program.
AGSIW: What was the state of the space community when you first came into it, and where do you hope to see this community go in the future?
Lama: After joining my very first space workshop, I was really excited about it because it was the only one in Kuwait. I participated in it, wrote a proposal about building a space simulation laboratory in Kuwait, and they liked it. Then I was promoted to become a national point of contact for Kuwait for the Space Generation Advisory Council, which is under the umbrella of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. As the national point of contact, I realized that the space community was only the older generation who witnessed the Apollo era. These individuals witnessed people going to the moon and witnessed the shuttle go to space and come back, so they’re emotionally linked to all of these historical events. However, the younger generation is less interested because there wasn’t something as historical that people felt everyone should see or hear about in the space sector.
Working with these older people was kind of difficult, because, as a younger person, I have different approaches to things, different points of view, and the way that I view the world is very different from the way they do. So, I decided to go to my first conference: the Space Generation Congress in Germany. When I came back, I shared pictures and experiences from the conference with younger girls in workshops I hosted in Kuwait and slowly saw girls becoming interested in the field and speaking to me about wanting to join it but worrying that it was male dominated. I also go to all-girls elementary and middle schools in Kuwait and explain some topics related to space, and this is the most important thing to me, honestly. So, I decided to dedicate my social media to sharing these stories, enlightening people about space, and bringing all of the knowledge that I got from conferences. I believe that slowly Kuwaiti youth are understanding and recognizing the other space agencies in the GCC and are starting to question why we don’t have one, especially after seeing the Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri go to space.
AGSIW: What do you hope your presence in this community, specifically as a young woman, will do for other young women interested in space in Kuwait?
Lama: The field is still male dominated, and, historically, it was dominated by white men. Today people in the field are preaching diversity; however, we do not see a huge number of girls, and when we do see more girls, we do not see Arab or Middle Eastern women. So, the thing that made me want to keep my social media accounts public and use them as an outreach platform is that I realized that some girls actually needed to see someone out there doing science and at the same time just looking like an ordinary girl that we can find anywhere in Kuwait because usually hijabi girls don’t really get good roles in Kuwait. I know that there’s a huge number of girls who wear the hijab in Kuwait, and I wanted to show them that it’s fine – you can go outside and be yourself. What I usually do is when I come back from these conferences is I host workshops – it’s mainly girls who attend them – and try to translate the knowledge that I’ve gained and simplify it for people to understand. So, I’m a feminist, and I think it’s important to show girls that this is happening.
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