Emirati astronauts Mohammad Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi being briefed by student Stepan Litvichenko about the Space Lab at GEMS International School – Al Khail in Dubai on Thursday
Emirati astronauts Mohammad Al Mulla and Nora Al Matrooshi being briefed by student Stepan Litvichenko about the Space Lab at GEMS International School – Al Khail in Dubai on Thursday Image Credit: Ahmad Alotbi/Gulf News

Dubai: The UAE’s youngest and newest astronauts on Thursday inspired a group of Dubai school students chasing space dreams.

Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammad Al Mulla, the first Arabs to graduate from a class of the US Space Agency NASA earlier this year, inaugurated a space lab at a school and interacted with the students in the presence of Dr Aisha Miran, director-general of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA).

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Part of the second batch of the UAE Astronaut Programme run by Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, the astronauts were briefed by students about the projects they do in the lab that is designed to look and feel like a space capsule on Mars.

Pointing out the image of the human brain displayed at the event, astronaut Nora highlighted its significance, emphasising that it symbolises the essence of human spaceflight. “It’s actually the core of human spaceflight,” she said.

The mechanical engineer-turned-astronaut praised the students for their initiative, reminding them that humans are at the heart of all achievements and encouraging them to take pride in their future accomplishments.

Astronaut Al Mulla, a former Dubai Police helicopter pilot, praised the resources made available to the students. “One of our goals is to inspire the next generation and I feel like here in the UAE now the next generation is in safe hands,” he said, commending the facilities available to the young generation.

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‘Very hard question’

After their graduation in March, the duo had received a silver astronaut pin affirming their status as fully qualified astronauts prepared for future space missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the Moon, and eventually Mars.

While interacting with the students, they faced what Al Mulla termed “a very hard question” from student Stepan Litvichenko.

The Grade 10 student asked the astronauts if astronauts of his generation would fly to Mars. Al Mulla first asked Stepan about his age. When he replied he was 16, Mohammed patted his back and said: “Your grandson will go,” eliciting laughter among the audience.

Dream-come-true moment

Speaking to Gulf News later, Stepan said his dream was to become an astronaut and carry on the legacy of his great-grandfather who, he said, was a flight engineer who worked on the USSR’s first rocket. The Russian expat student said it was a dream-come-true moment for him when he saw two astronauts for the first time.

“I really like my subjects, physics and computer science and all things related to space. I’m going to take up engineering at university and I think I will work hard to become an astronaut in Russia,” he added.

For Grade 11 students Nada Shuhaib, Alexandra Iskandar and Hilya Bougherra, meeting Nora - the first Emirati and Arab woman astronaut - was the highlight of their day. “We’re just really proud that our school gives us all these opportunities to get inspired and spark our curiosity. It’s honestly just amazing,” said Nada.

What’s inside the Space Lab?

Learning in the Space Lab of GEMS International School – Al Khail (GIS) in Dubai covers key topics including agriculture on Mars (hydroponics and AI), metaverse 3D game design for social interaction, AI-infused robotic pets for Mars, driverless cars for Martian transport, DIY space repairs, as well as robotic arms, wearable haptics, and gesture controls for space work.

A student using Virtual Reality for space studies at the Lab
A student using Virtual Reality for space studies at the Lab Image Credit: Ahmad Alotbi/Gulf News

The facility – part of GEMS Education’s Centre of Excellence for Aviation, Aeronautics, and Space, which is based at GIS – aims to empower students to become developers of technology and futuristic concepts rather than just consumers.

With its Space Lab, the school, which follows International Baccalaureate curriculum, said it has become a pioneer globally to offer such a diverse set of course options in design, which include Product Design, Digital Design/UI/UX, Food Design, Fashion Design, STEM Aviation - and now Space Lab.

From the next academic year, students of Grade 9 and 10 can choose the Space Lab as an elective option.

Future partnership

Simon Herbert, Head of School and CEO of GIS, said: “We shall work in partnership with many other schools in Dubai on the integration of aviation, aeronautics, and space as part of a progressive and dynamic curriculum.”

Vikas Singh, Head of Secondary Design and Director of the Centre of Excellence for Aviation, Aeronautics, and Space at GIS, said: “The launch of the GIS Space Lab is not just about exploring the vastness of space; it’s also about igniting the spark of curiosity in our students, equipping them with the skills to solve real-world Mars problems, and preparing them to be the pioneers of tomorrow.”

Christian Amir Salides, another Grade 11 student, said the unprecedented event had transformed traditional teaching, creating a dynamic learning environment driven by student curiosity. “Students are now immersed in programming, interactive game design, and hands-on activities like planting, fostering pure curiosity and imparting essential real-world skills,” he added.

Dr Saima Rana, Group Chief Education Officer of GEMS Education, said: “Empowering students to explore and take risks, GIS is at the cutting edge of technology, sciences, and problem-solving. We’re proud of our students and grateful for the support of Miss Nora and Mr Mohammed. As our students navigate this resource, we emphasise that it’s about more than technology; it’s about human connection and solving global problems.”