Space engineer Loay Elbasyouni was part of 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 because of Israeli and Egyptian restrictions.
“When you deal with electrons and technology, you can calculate things and know their path,” 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.”
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 U.S. space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he helped design the Ingenuity helicopter.
He left Gaza in 1998 to study in the United States and has only returned once, for a brief visit in 2000 prior to the Second 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.
The fighting was especially intense in and around frontier towns like Beit Hanoun, Elbasyouni says Israeli military tanks bulldozed his father’s fruit orchards on four occasions.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but two years later the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces. Since then, Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade that strictly limits the movement of people and goods in and out of the narrow coastal strip, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians.
As Gaza weathered one crisis after another, Elbasyouni pursued his studies in the U.S.
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 Pennsylvania, 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 joined with NASA on 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.
It was a triumph hailed as a Wright brothers moment in the history of flight. Since then, Elbasyouni has done numerous TV interviews with Western and Arab media and become a hometown hero in Beit Hanoun.
But he says he’s unlikely to visit anytime soon because of the travel restrictions.