Growing up in Egypt, Mohammed Sallam still remembers being fascinated by Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster sci-fi thriller Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That gave wings to his dreams of one day soaring into outer space. Today Egyptian astronaut Mohammed Sallam is the only Arab candidate for the Dutch Mars One project, which aims to establish the first human settlement/colony on the red planet. He is one of 100 candidates who has entered Round III for Mars One, down from 202,000 initial applicants.
As a little boy, he used to stare out the window, hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of aliens. What started off with a question about the reality of extraterrestrial life soon extended to contemplating the vast universe that encapsulates our limited existence. “Being an astronaut may not have innately been my lifelong dream but it was an inevitable dream to transpire. I did not know back then that there was such a thing as an astronaut. All I knew was that I wanted to explore the cosmos myself,” says the 37-year-old in an email interview.
His father, Dr El Sayed Sallam, was a surgeon by day and musician by night, while his mother Fatma Youssef was director of photography at Maspero, Egypt’s Radio and Television Union building.
While music marked his childhood, sports and space shaped his late adolescence and young adulthood. Relatability to the individuals played a huge part in people Mohammed considered as role models.
Aside from his passion for sci-fi films, one person who inspired him was boxing champion Mohammad Ali. “He was a man who earned his place in life, in spite of the ruthless tides he had to swim against. Add to that his ability to articulate speeches that punched injustice and racism in the face,” says Mohammed.
With his fascination for space exploration, it was only natural to be inspired by a pioneer like Yuri Gagarin – the first man to voyage into outer space. “His boyish charm paralleled with daring courage to cruise the unknown made every curious child want to be his friend. I was no exception.”
When it was time for college, space education wasn’t a viable option back then. So with his mother’s media connections, he opted for a degree in Mass Communication.
A year into college, a car accident claimed both his parents’ lives. “I was devastated and confused. I dropped out of Mass Communication,” he says. Later, he pursued a degree in Computer Information.
Journey to Mars
The ticket to Mars came in the form of a random piece of news announcing the call for applicants in 2013.
“The initial application required answering a lot of questions to reveal my personal background and personality. I also had to submit a 70-second video of mine saying why I’d want to go to Mars and why I think I’m the most suitable candidate for the mission,” recalls Mohammed.
In the second round of selection which started in 2014, all Mars One candidates were required to study many aspects of the red planet as well as space science, which included human psychology, environmental control and life support system, space farming (food on Mars), physiology, space exploration, medicine for interplanetary trips, and space law and politics.
Mohammed did it all but when he received the email informing him that he had been selected for Round III, he could not believe his eyes.
Next year, 24 finalists will be selected and trained for the 2031 mission to Mars. Asked how it feels to be the only Arab participant who has made it to this round, he says: “Being in a position that represents an otherwise underrepresented group in the space industry is a huge responsibility. As the entire world takes huge strides in the field of space exploration, it personally means a lot to me to add another name to the currently short list of Arab space explorers and scientists.”
Mohammed has contributed greatly to multiple educational projects that introduce the space industry to school and college students. He is the founder of Saturn V Space Club and Project Manager and Speaker of Make Space Yours. He is also on the board of advisory members of Telescopia, a project that offers unprecedented multilingual live telescope experience.
Mohammed has other achievements too. In a 2015 poll on the Egyptian magazine Cairo Scene, he was voted one of the 15 most inspiring Egyptians with profound influence on the Egyptian society.
“Whether I make it to Mars or not, my prime goal is to spread awareness about the space industry and space education in the region. In addition to the talks that I give at schools and universities, I deliver space education programmes through my Saturn V Space Club – an endeavour made possible by my astronaut candidacy in Mars One.”
With the UAE being in the spotlight in the science and space exploration arena, what with UAE’s Hope Mission on its way to the red planet, Mohammed, in May this year, virtually met a bunch of Grade 5 students of Nibras International School, Dubai, and shared valuable information about space and Mars.
“I was once a child keen on space science and exploration but had [few people to guide me]. Today, I devote my time to guide children who, like me once, are very interested in space but need a pointer, and more importantly, reassurance that there’s hope for them to become part of the space league,” he says.
Back to the future
Mohammed is proud that his wife Enas El Masry is his number one fan and cheerleader “despite people questioning her sanity in marrying a man who may potentially go on a one-way mission to Mars.”
So what does he envisage for the future?
“Besides the knowledge and technology, what’s really mandatory if we want to set foot on Mars in the next 10-15 years is to put politics and competition aside. Without full collaboration across countries, space agencies, the private and public sector, it’ll be much longer before anyone can turn this dream into a reality.
“Today, Arabs make up around 20 per cent of the world population, that’s around one-fifth of the world. The day may eventually come when humans make contact with other forms of life. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see Arabs, side-by-side with other world leaders, once again making history in the realm of space?’
WHAT IS MARS ONE
Mars One consists of two entities – the Dutch not-for-profit Stichting Mars One (Mars One Foundation) and Swiss publicly trading Mars One Ventures. Its aim: to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars.
Before carefully selected and trained crews will depart to Mars, several unmanned missions will be completed, establishing a habitable settlement waiting for the first astronauts to arrive. The Mars One crews will go to Mars not to simply visit, but to live, explore, and create a second home for humanity. The first men and women to go to Mars are going there to stay.