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From Gaza to Mars: Palestinian engineer behind the Red Planet’s helicopter flight

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip – An electronic engineer from Gaza, Loay Elbasyouni, worked with the NASA team that went down in history this month by launching an experimental helicopter from the surface of Mars.

But he says a potential expedition to his hometown in the Gaza Strip, where posters mark his achievement, feels even further away due to Israeli and Egyptian restrictions.

“When you deal with electrons and technology, you can calculate things and know their way,” he told The Associated Press in a video interview from his home in Los Angeles. “When you deal with people and politics, you don’t know where things can go.”

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The 42-year-old man himself made an amazing journey from the town of Beit Hanoun near the heavily guarded Israeli border to the US Space Agency̵

7;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 United States and returned only once for a brief visit in 2000 before the second Palestinian intifada or the uprising that began later that year. About 1,000 Israelis and 6,000 Palestinians were killed in Palestinian suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks and subsequent Israeli military operations.

The fighting was particularly intense in and around border towns such as Beit Hanoun. Elbasyuni says Israeli military tanks bulldozed his father’s orchards four times.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but two years later the Islamist terrorist group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces. Since then, Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade that severely restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of the narrow coastline of more than 2 million Palestinians. Israel says the blockade is vital to prevent Hamas, which is seeking to destroy Israel, from importing weapons.

Abdelwahab Elbasyouni, Loy Elbasyouni’s uncle, a space engineer who was part of NASA’s team that went down in history this month by launching an experimental helicopter from the surface of Mars, stands on the porch of the decorated house where the Loy family lived in Bate. Hanun, Gaza Strip, April 26, 2021 (Adel Hana / AP)

While Gaza was going through a crisis, Elbasyuni continued his studies in the United States.

He struggled to afford to study at the University of Kentucky, especially after the family farm was bulldozed. He once 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 received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering.

In 2012, he was hired by a technology company that develops electric aircraft. Two years later, the company was contracted by NASA for the helicopter project on Mars, and Elbasyuni was promoted to leading electronic engineer.

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

The robotic helicopter he developed arrived on Mars with the rover Perseverance, which was launched into space by a rocket in July 2020. He said his feelings were “indescribable” when he watched it touch the surface of the red planet in February.

Elbasyuni followed every moment of the expedition and nervously awaited any signal that the helicopter worked after it was launched. When the first images reached Earth, showing the helicopter taking off, “I screamed in the middle of the night and woke everyone in the building,” he said.

It was a triumph hailed as a moment by the Wright brothers in the history of flight. Since then, Elbasyouni has conducted numerous television interviews with Western and Arab media and has become a hero of his hometown of Beit Hanoun.

But he says he is unlikely to visit soon due to travel restrictions.

If he wanted to visit it, he would have to cross Jordan or Egypt, as Israel does not allow Gaza residents to fly to or from the international airport.

In Jordan, he had to wait for a special shuttle to take him from the Allenby Bridge over the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Israel to the Erez-Gaza crossing. The irregular shuttle only works for a few days. Each direction will require an Israeli solution, a process that can be complex, time-consuming and uncertain.

Permits to leave Gaza are usually given only to patients seeking life-saving medical treatment or to a small number of business people.

Another option would be to cross Egypt and try to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing, which opens only sporadically and can be closed for months. Egypt imposes its own restrictions on Palestinians, who must apply for travel permits and sometimes pay excessive fees to move up the line.

He says his father, who retired as a surgeon in 2012 and now lives in Germany, visited Gaza through Egypt in 2019 and was detained there for seven months before leaving for Israel.

Full-scale model of the Ingenuity helicopter shown to the media at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, February 17, 2021 (Damian Dovarganes / AP)

Elbasyuni points out that most Americans, including space engineers, receive only two or three weeks of rest a year. “If you go (to Gaza), you can get stuck and lose your job,” he said.

Restrictions on all sides have been tightened since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, but have long since overtaken it.

Israel has said it is needed to prevent the importation of weapons and military supplies into the Palestinian coastal enclave from Gaza. Hamas has fought three wars with Israel and is considered a terrorist group from Israel and the West. He fired tens of thousands of missiles at Israeli cities.

COGAT, the Israeli military body responsible for coordinating civil affairs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says it handles individual requests and allows humanitarian travel. According to him, each request receives “an in-depth review that includes all relevant professional services and is subject to security considerations.”

Critics of the blockade say it is a collective punishment, with generations of Gaza residents locked up in a huge open-air prison.

Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that closely monitors closures and advocates for freedom of movement, says “serious, large-scale restrictions” mean that “future scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators in Gaza are blocked from accessing potentially life-changing educational and professional opportunities outside the band. “

Despite the political situation, Elbasyuni says there are still opportunities for Palestinian entrepreneurs and innovators, even in Gaza, and hopes it can provide inspiration for young Palestinians.

“Being part of this project that serves humanity is a source of great pride,” he said.

Times of Israel officials contributed to this report.

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