To infinity and beyond: Palestine's first female astronaut Noor Haj-Tamim reaches for the stars

6 min read
28 April, 2023

The Arab world’s female STEM revolution brought the world's leading female scientists including a Palestinian astronaut, not the one in Larissa Sansour’s film A Space Exodus, a real one.

The New Arab met Noor Haj-Tamim, the first Palestinian Citizen Science Astronaut candidate, one of the youngest female private astronaut candidates in America, and the Executive Director for JSSOAR- Jordan Student Space Outreach and Academic Relations.

We discussed her passion for space and her devotion to helping other Arab students to hopefully become like her.

"I always found myself painting the sky and stars. I’ve always been and yet remain incredibly fearful of the thought of outer space. I believe fear is my motivator. Sometimes it is not passion that you chase, fear can be your ultimate motivator"

From painting the universe to exploring it

Noor Haj-Tamim was born to Palestinian immigrants in a small town in Ohio.

As the eldest child, she became the guide for her parents, especially her mom: “I truly admire both my parents for their integrity and character in their decision to emigrate to America. I grew up in a traditional household where my father was the breadwinner of my family, being a civil engineer, and my mother stayed home to care for myself and my younger brother. I became my mother’s translator, a sole friend in the country, and a guide to American culture.”

Noor grew up with science posters displayed on her family’s living room walls. As she candidly opened up to The New Arab, she confessed that being surrounded by housewives such as her mother made her believe she was destined to become one herself.

Noor has her sights set on becoming the first Palestinian in space [photo credit: Noor Haj-Tamim]
Noor has her sights set on becoming the first Palestinian in space [photo credit: Noor Haj-Tamim]

The idea changed at the age of seven when her parents separated: “I watched my mother grow and stand on her own two feet, learning the ways of American culture, making friends outside the home, building an income for herself, and finding her own outlets. My mother entered school in the United States to learn English and eventually became a teacher.”

After her parents’ divorce, creativity became a valve of respite for her as she began painting the universe: “I always found myself painting the sky and stars. I’d always been and yet remain incredibly fearful of the thought of outer space. I believe fear is my motivator. Sometimes it is not passion that you chase, fear can be your ultimate motivator.”

After witnessing her first meteor shower, her curiosity about the possibility of other lives beyond our planet spiked: “Like the bottom of the ocean, we do not for sure know what is out there. For all we know, various life forms potentially exist in galaxies far away. Potential lives, families, creatures, whatever our imaginations can stir up. The thought that we are not the sole planet that carries life is truly exhilarating.”

Jordan Student Space Outreach and Academic Relations

Noor has founded the non-profit organisation, JSSOAR, to provide access to space and STEM education for underserved communities in Jordan.

In her conversation with The New Arab, she explained the challenges faced by disadvantaged students in Jordan, where the performance gap related to socioeconomic status is 66 score points, and no disadvantaged students were top performers in reading in PISA.

JSSOAR collaborates with NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and Let's Talk Science to introduce space and STEM education programs for students in Jordan. The non-profit offers NASA Educator classes, the Mars Student Imaging Program, and participates in the Cubes in Space program, which allows students in grades 6-12 to design and fly an experiment in space.

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According to Noor, it is important to focus on equity rather than equality to ensure that students in underserved communities have access to resources to pursue their dreams: “The idea of opening a non-profit to aid children in a situation similar to mine began when I first stepped into the Intravehicular (IVA) suit during my astronautics training," she said.  

"I began thinking to myself that without my move back to the States, I would not have been able to obtain my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the age of eighteen, the potential of working with NASA for numerous projects wouldn’t have been attainable, nor would I have had the ability to pursue my utmost passion for aviation. If it weren’t for my move to the States, my life and career path would be paradoxical," explained Noor.

"The question at heart for pursuing this hefty of an operation is to consider why children must leave behind their blood, homes, and culture to pursue their dreams.”

Even the sky is not a limit

Noor’s true purpose materialised during her ninth-grade year when she discovered her profound knowledge of STEM education.

At that time, she was a student in Jordan where access to robotics labs and experiential science was minimal due to her attendance at a school that solely permitted male students to perform dissections, laboratory work, and physical STEM activities.

Conversely, female students were allocated paperwork assignments, which she deemed inadequate for advancing into surgery or succeeding in STEM disciplines.

Recognising the pivotal significance of hands-on learning, she persevered in pursuit of greater STEM knowledge. She gained admission to an online high school and expedited her high school diploma attainment in a single year, yet she remained eager for further education.

At the young age of fourteen, she secured an internship in space suit development at Huntsville, Alabama despite facing a financial deficit. Fortunately, the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, a non-profit organisation created by the gold medallist, bestowed upon her an award that not only enabled her to pursue her aviation aspirations but also supported countless other young girls with opportunities and resources.

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As she continued to pursue her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, she applied three times for the astronaut candidacy program before finally being accepted in 2022.

While filling out media releases and suit sizing forms, she was disheartened to notice that Palestine was the only country not represented in the list of flags to be placed on suits. This painful realisation was a deeply personal one for her, given that her entire lineage is from Palestine.

“At the time, it would have made sense to stick with the flag of the United States given that I was born there. However, I was raised in a Palestinian household. The colours of our flag are said to each hold a specific meaning, and the combination of them tells the larger story of the plight of the native people of Palestine.

"The Red represents the many martyrs and sacrifices of the Palestinian people. The Black represents the oppression and persecution that Palestinians have suffered for countless years. The White symbolises peace and love, and the purity of the messages that every Prophet was sent with to the sacred land of Palestine. The Green means prosperity, blessings, and hope for a thriving future.”

Today, Noor's desire is for her own institution, JSSOAR, to help as many other students as possible to give others the chances she was given: “I believe in fighting for my people as they fought for me, hence, allowing me to become the world’s first Private Science Astronaut Candidate of Palestinian origin in training.”

Ouissal Harize is a UK-based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize