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Gazan Engineer Behind Mars Helicopter Says Visiting Home Is No Small Step

Gazan Engineer Behind Mars Helicopter Says Visiting Home Is No Small Step

Saturday, 1 May, 2021 - 06:00
Elbasyouni has made an astonishing journey from Gaza to the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. (AP)

An electronics engineer from Gaza, Loay Elbasyouni, had worked with the NASA team that made history this month by launching an experimental helicopter from the surface of Mars.


But he says an expedition to his hometown in the Gaza Strip, where posters celebrate his achievement, feels even farther away.


“When you deal with electrons and technology, you can calculate things and know their path,” he said from his home in Los Angeles.


“When you deal with people and politics, you don’t know where things can go.”


The 42-year-old has himself made an astonishing journey from the hardscrabble town of Beit Hanoun near the heavily-guarded Israeli frontier to the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he worked as a contractor helping design the Ingenuity helicopter.


He left Gaza in 1998 to study in the US and has only returned once, for a brief visit in 2000 prior to the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, late that year.


Some 6,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in fighting, attacks and Israeli military operations before the violence ebbed in 2005.


As Gaza weathered one crisis after another, Elbasyouni pursued his studies in the US.


He struggled to afford tuition at the University of Kentucky, especially after the family farm was bulldozed. At one point he said he worked more than 90 hours a week at a Subway sandwich shop to make ends meet.


He eventually transferred to the University of Louisville, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.


In 2012 he was hired by a technology company that was developing electric aircraft. Two years later, the company was contracted by NASA for the Mars helicopter project, and Elbasyouni was promoted to lead electronics engineer.


He spent six years working alongside other NASA scientists to develop the helicopter’s propulsion system, its controller and other key components.


The robotic helicopter he developed hitched a ride to Mars on the Perseverance rover, which was launched into space on a rocket in July. He said his feelings were “indescribable” when he watched it touch down on the surface of the red planet in February.


Elbasyouni followed every moment of the expedition, and nervously awaited any signal the helicopter was working once it was launched. When the first images reached Earth showing the helicopter taking flight, “I screamed in the middle of night and woke up everyone in the building,” he said.


Elbasyouni says he’s unlikely to visit anytime soon because of the travel restrictions. If he wanted to visit he would have to go through Jordan or Egypt, as Israel does not allow Gazans to fly in or out of its international airport.


In Jordan, he would have to wait for a special shuttle to take him from the Allenby Bridge crossing across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Israel to the Erez Crossing with Gaza. The irregular shuttle only runs every few days. Each direction would require an Israeli permit, a process that can be complicated, time-consuming and uncertain.


Exit permits are usually only granted to patients seeking life-saving medical treatment or a small number of businessmen.


His other option would be to go through Egypt and try to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing, which only opens sporadically.


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