INTERVIEW: Omar Samra reaches out to Egyptian students to 'Make Space Yours'

Ingy Deif, Wednesday 16 Nov 2016

Ahram Online talks to renowned Egyptian adventurer Omar Samra as embarks on a project to inspire Egypt's youth to think in new dimensions

Omar Samra at the  launch of
Omar Samra at the launch of 'Make Space Yours'. Photo by:Ahram Online

Targeting over 100 schools and universities, and hitting several social media platforms, Omar Samra teams up with the private sector to launch "Make Space Yours." 

‘Make Space Yours’ aims at motivating, exciting, and raising the interest of university and school students in space science and exploration, by engaging them in space competitions on a national level.

Omar Samra is an Egyptian banker-turned adventurer, who made history when he succeeded in May 2007 in becoming the first Egyptian — and the youngest Arab (then 29-years-old) — to climb Mount Everest.

Samra, broke another record by becoming the first Egyptian to complete the "seven summits" challenge — climbing the highest mountains of seven continents.

In December 2013, he was one of the winners of the Axe Apollo Space Academy competition in Florida, the United States, beating 112 competitors from the rest of the world on his path to becoming the first Egyptian to see the edge of space.

Samra's latest endeavours aim to take Egyptian students from all over the country into new dimension.

The new project is supported by XCOR Aerospace, who are providing technical expertise and flying the winning experiment in a payload to space, with Samra. NGO partner Injaz is responsible for school and university outreach and management. Injaz works on promoting employability and entrepreneurship among Egypt’s unemployed youth.

Why did you decide to tackle this subject now; what do you see on the horizon?

Actually it was soonest we could bring the project to life. My scheduled space trip was postponed, and I thought I could use the extra time for a greater benefit.

The idea of bringing closer the culture of space and innovation to mainstream students was already there, and I had established a strong relation of trust and experience with sponsors who could help this dream come to light. Bringing XCOR on board took some convincing though. They are a global company and Egypt initially wasn't on their radar.

Tell us more about the competition.

The first phase will start 23 November, with a team of four and I, including Mohamed Sallam, the only Egyptian and Arab astronaut candidate at Mars One; Ahmed Farid, scientist astronaut candidate at Project PoSSUM; Amr Abdel Wahab, founder and CEO of Astrotrips; and finally Hamed Gamal, chapter head for Egypt at The Mars Society.

We will launch a series of introductions to students in many governorates, including Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Sinai and Upper Egypt. The aim is to create a strong sense of excitement and engagement about space.

The university students will be asked to submit ideas to be tested in micro-gravity. One winning idea will accompany me on my space flight aboard the XCOR Aerospace.

The competition is designed to last throughout the academic year to allow maximum student engagement.

Why will only one experiment be chosen to travel?

We wish there could be more, but anything boarding a spacecraft is very costly. The winning project, which must not exceed 20 kilos in weight, will cost more than $50,000.

What about school students?

They will be required to hand in a maximum 1,000-word research paper in which they describe their idea of building a colony or spaceship travelling to other planets. 

School students as young as eight can participate, and the competition will launch every three months, and winning students will participate in a three-day intensive educational space camp.

How will you ensure that all students know about the competition?

Considering the age group of the target youth, and through Digital Republic as a project partner, we have invested heavily in digital media to maximise our reach and engagement and participation. A dedicated website and social media pages will be developed to guide and update students throughout the project’s timeline.

With its initial launch in Egypt, ‘Make Space Yours’ hopes to expand to the United Arab Emirates and other regional Arab destinations afterwards.

Did this endeavour link to your passion for protecting the environment?

I am indeed very passionate about environmental protection. The travels I conduct through my company are the only carbon-neutral ones in the region and we collaborate with the Ministry of Environment to help clean and maintain many natural reserves. I was also chosen by UNDP to be goodwill ambassador concerned with empowering youth and protecting the environment.

Nevertheless, the space project is something else. It is mainly a platform to empower and inspire the younger generation through technology.

How do you create the time for all these projects?

When I used to work in a corporate environment, I thought I barely had time to do anything else. But when I broke free to work on my own and realise my dreams and goals, I saw how limited my view was.

Although sometimes I feel overwhelmed, I have a constant urge to make a better use of time. I realise now that if the will and passion are there, everything fits in eventually.

I learned also to work smart. Delegating and sharing responsibilities are key factors to the growth of any work.

You have been trotting the globe talking to people and inspiring them. How do the youth in Egypt compare, and do you have different expectations from them in regard to the new space competition?

Children and youth in Egypt are the same as their peers worldwide, and I never see that nationality makes a difference. The point of the competition is to reach out to Egyptians, giving them a platform to unleash their ideas and innovate. This was lacking before.

Why only the private sector and not collaboration with the ministries of education or science research, to take things a step further?

Because, the point was to move quickly and smoothly without bureaucracy, and to act as a startup for young millennials to whom an independently created platform will appeal a lot more that government-affiliated entities.

This initiative, your recent marathon, and your charity Toy Run are some activities that show you are steering towards a much younger generation. What do you aim to achieve?

I am at a stage of my life where I am slowing down on achieving certain milestones and rather looking forward to passing on ideas and experience to youth. I will never stop dreaming and aspiring to push boundaries, but what gives me great satisfaction now is conveying my ideas and reaching out to youth and kids, transferring knowledge and creating opportunities.

Even what I achieved as "the first Egyptian" to do what I did is of less relevance to me now, and I regard it not as a personal achievement as much as it was a way to shatter the glass barrier between many persons and what they think they can achieve.

When Humans of New York featured your experience it went viral and touched millions. What was the impact of this on you?

I never imagined that the spread would be that vast. I consider myself a very private person, and until I met Brandon Stanton in person, it never occurred to me to talk about the experience of losing my late wife on a public platform. But when I reflect on how much it touched people, and the way they flooded me with their compassion and shared their stories with me as well, I know I must have done something right.

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