'We are making history': Palestinian-American NASA chief Nujoud Fahoum Merancy is ready to take us back to the moon
Nujoud Fahoum Merancy just can’t wait for lift-off.
"I'm excited we are doing lunar exploration again!" she tells The New Arab. "I didn’t think I would get to do it in my lifetime, and here we are."
"It's very big and historic because no one’s left low-earth orbit or gone to the moon in the last 50 years"
Nujoud, a proud Palestinian-American, is NASA’s Chief of the Exploration Mission Planning Office responsible for developing the American space agency’s ventures into space.
She is currently working on the Artemis programme, a series of missions that will hopefully take humans back to the moon and beyond this decade.
"It's very big and historic because no one’s left low-earth orbit or gone to the moon in the last 50 years," she continues.
#Artemis1 launches next week! As #FromTheArchives counts down, we're highlighting @nujoud Merancy, Chief of Exploration Mission Planning at @NASA. Here, Merancy wears lapels ft. Palestinian tatreez, purchased in Nazareth, where her father is from. From AANM Collection 2020.08.00. pic.twitter.com/Iqj2VcYbxH— Arab American National Museum (@ArabAmericanMus) August 22, 2022
The last time anyone went to the moon was in 1972, during NASA’s famous Apollo missions. Merancy and her colleagues hope that Artemis – aptly named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology – can take us back.
The first part of the programme is the launch of Artemis 1, which is an uncrewed test flight of the rocket that will one day carry astronauts. It has so far been delayed three times due to technical faults and weather conditions, but NASA hopes for another attempt in early October.
If successful, it will carry astronauts in 2024 and land them on the lunar surface in a subsequent mission.
Nujoud is well known for her work but has also become somewhat of a social media celebrity over the past few years for her Palestinian heritage.
"I’m a Palestinian-American, my father’s from Nazareth. He came to the US to go to college and stayed – he met my mother here. And so I was born in the US," said Nujoud to The New Arab.
"I’m a Palestinian-American, my father’s from Nazareth"
She has always been very proud of her roots and tries to remain connected to her father’s homeland even though she grew up in Washington state in the north-western United States.
"I have a lot of family [back in Palestine]," she said. "I have lots of ammos and amtis (uncles and aunts), cousins and all that I love to go visit. I’ve been several times, and every few years we try to make a visit. Even my kids have been at this point. While I don’t speak Arabic, I love to cook Palestinian food. So I’m very close to my heritage, even here in the US."
Updated my NASA headshot, aged 7 years overnight 😂, but wore the same necklace for continuity pic.twitter.com/q3ZMq5dSHx— Nujoud Fahoum Merancy (@nujoud) October 16, 2019
Nujoud’s Palestinian identity first went viral in 2019, when she posted her official NASA portrait in which she is wearing a blazer with Palestinian embroidery on Twitter. It was quickly shared and celebrated by hundreds of users online.
"I ended up working with a local tailor to take lots of tatreez (Palestinian embroidery) and put it on my suit jacket... I got it all done right before it was time to get my NASA picture and then it became a portrait very much of me – my work and my heritage all in one picture"
"It wasn’t intentional for [the post] to go viral!" she tells The New Arab.
"When Rashida Tlaib was sworn in at Congress, she wore a thobe, and I was like that’s really cool!" she said, referencing Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s decision to wear the traditional Palestinian gown at her swearing-in ceremony in January 2019.
"But I don’t wear a thobe, that’s not me, I can’t show up to work in that. So it churned on my mind and I ended up working with a local tailor to take lots of tatreez (Palestinian embroidery) and put it on my suit jacket," she said.
"I got it all done right before it was time to get my NASA picture updated and then it became a portrait very much of me – my work and my heritage all in one picture."
More recently, she had started the hashtag #YallaToTheMoon to support the launch of Artemis 1 ahead of its first scheduled launch attempt on 29 August. 'Yalla' is an Arabic word that roughly translates to 'let's go'.
Nujoud credits her father, a trained engineer, for her interest in technical sciences that eventually led her to NASA.
"My father was a civil engineer, so the familiarity with engineering is what I gravitated to. I’m a technical person, I like logical stuff and puzzles. And this is really just a giant puzzle," she said, referencing her work at NASA. "I credit my dad for introducing me to it all that long ago."
Her journey at NASA began nearly two decades ago more or less straight out of university. Nujoud first worked on the International Space Station, and then on Orion – the craft at the top of NASA’s rocket that will one day carry astronauts to the moon.
Her current role as Chief of the Exploration Mission Planning Office involves developing the missions for Artemis. “I’m leading the office and the team working across all of the programmes and vehicles to design the missions we’re flying for Artemis.
"So it is engineering the mission of how do we get to the moon – the trajectories, how do you layer that with what the vehicles can do, and what commodities like food and water for the crew to take.”
"I don’t think growing up I saw any positive representation of Palestinians. So it’s very difficult as a child to understand who you are when you don’t see positive representation of someone that looks like you in the media"
NASA hopes to land the first woman and person of colour on the moon during the Artemis missions, which Nujoud said should become normal now that spaceflight has become more accessible to everyone around the world.
It is important for people of all backgrounds to feel represented, she said, something she felt she lacked growing up.
"I don’t think growing up I saw any positive representation of Palestinians. So it’s very difficult as a child to understand who you are when you don’t see a positive representation of someone that looks like you in the media,” she explains to The New Arab.
"It’s important that people can see themselves represented, and see themselves in a positive light. So that’s why I take representation and diversity and being able to do things for humanity very seriously."
Palestinians around the world are trying to change this negative perception of them by trying to make a positive impact on the world. Nujoud is no different, and working on "something good" for humankind is one of the reasons she chose this field, she said.
"Palestinian-Americans or Palestinians, in general, want to be a part of the world in a positive way, and it was very intentional that I personally wanted to work in human spaceflight because it is something good," she tells The New Arab.
"And I don’t know how much of that is for any given reason other than that I wanted to be a force for good in the world. that’s a part of who I am."
My daughter, who wears #NASA t-shirts as she leads the electrical team for her high school robotics program, is so inspired by Nujoud Fahoum Merancy @nujoud, a Palestinian-American with a leading role in the #Artemis program. #WomenInSTEM https://t.co/dnORJB9zG1— adelyreporter (@AdelyReporter) September 1, 2022
Nujoud advocated for diversity because she wants to work with the best people, who come from all parts of the world.
"In the sixties, all the astronauts were Caucasian men. That’s just the way it was. Today you look at NASA's astronaut core and our international partners, and [you see that] we have a very diverse coalition of astronauts because they pick good people," she said.
"I hope everyone sees that we can all be a part of it, and I don’t think we saw that in the sixties. Not just for Arabs, but women. […] There was only one woman in the launch centre in the 1960s; the launch director is a woman today. It’s a great thing to see our astronauts and our workforce represent all of humanity,” she added.
"We’re not going to the moon just to land a diverse astronaut on the moon, but we get to explore the moon with people that represent all of humanity. And that’s what’s important."
Over time, she said, space programmes have become significantly cheaper around the world that have allowed new countries, including those in the Middle East and Asia, from taking a more active role in outer space.
The Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s alone cost around five percent of the US federal budget at the time – a massive and unsustainable amount.
Today, all of NASA – including the Mars rover, weather satellites, and of course Artemis – functions on less than one percent, according to Nujoud.
"We’re not going to the moon just to land a diverse astronaut on the moon, but we get to explore the moon with people that represent all of humanity. And that’s what’s important"
Cheaper technologies have allowed other space programmes, such as the United Arab Emirates, to plan their own missions to space, and are why NASA can now hope to send astronauts abroad more regularly and sustainably.
"I’m really excited to see more and more emerging countries like the UAE space programme, where they sent a satellite to Mars," she said. "It’s just amazing what can happen today that really wasn’t feasible 50 years ago when we last went to the moon."
Ultimately, it has been too long since humankind last walked on the lunar surface. We are often told stories of our parents or grandparents watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on black-and-white television, and it is difficult for modern generations to relate.
"The last time anyone went to the moon was 1972 – it predates me and most of the people alive on the planet today," says Nujoud.
"There’s a lot of people I work with that talk about how they were, you know, nine when they watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I’m like that’s cool, all I did was read about it in books. This is our time. NASA calls us the Artemis generation, this is us! We get to do this one.
"It’s not just the history books anymore. We are making history."
Ali Abbas Ahmadi is a staff journalist at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @AliAbbasAhmadi2