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Mohammed Sallam: The Egyptian on His Way to Mars

In a CairoScene exclusive, Sina Stieding speaks to the only Egyptian shortlisted by the Mars One project to potentially become one of the 24 earthlings mandated with starting a human colony on the Red Planet.

Staff Writer

Mohammed Sallam: The Egyptian on His Way to Mars

Mars One, a privately-financed not-for-profit exploration of the planet Mars, plans to send 24 human beings to Mars by 2025 with the whole world watching. On Tuesday, a list of 100 potential candidates from all over the world to start a colony on the Red Planet was released, and to our delight, Mohammed Sallam, a Cairo native, was amongst them. Stating the Ancient Egyptians and the magic of the Pyramids as his inspiration to go to space, we met him at the iconic Mena House Hotel to find out what drove him to apply, how he became one of 100 and what he is most afraid of. 

The Ancient Egyptians believed they would go to space after death. Mohammed Sallam hopes to go before he dies.

When did you apply to the Mars One project, and why?

It took me about 30 minutes from finding out about the application and submitting mine. I found the mission by chance: I am a very proud Egyptian so I was always curious to see what the Western media reported about our revolution and one day I was on the CNN website, and among their regular tabs there was a tab that said Mars. I clicked on it and I found the most interesting thing ever: Mars One. I saw that anybody can apply, no matter from what background. I wanted to be an astronaut since I was little, but in Egypt we don’t go that way: not in school, not on TV. I never thought something like this would be accessible to me. 

Tell us how the process went.

I first applied in August 2013. December 30th, 2013 I got the news that I had proceeded to the  next round. We went from 202,000 applicants to 1058. After physical and medical filtering, there were only 660 to go into interviews. Only one guy conducted all of the interviews so it took two months. Within the interview there were three questions we had to answer about Mars and I couldn’t answer one. The man probably saw my determination though, so I made it to the top 100 as the only Egyptian.

How will they decide who gets through to the next round?

From now on it is all about compatibility. If there are three people you are going to spend the rest of your life with, how big is that decision? It will need at least eight years of training to be able to arrange your life around this team. We will be trained together and we will choose each other. We will have a sheet to fill in with the most trivial questions, such as “What toothpaste do you like?” to make sure they find suitable teammates. They are looking for settlers, not scientists.

You probably got chosen because you know dust so well, coming from Cairo. What other things do you think you will bring to the group that nobody else could?

All my life I’ve been an incredible team worker. I’ve playedbBasketball all my life and I know my limits. I don’t have to be the star. In fact, I know, if I can make my star shine I am going to be a pillar in my team. I don’t need gold, I am happy with silver. I love my team and I will fight and die for whoever’s jersey I’m wearing. I was also in an orchestra for most of my life so I learned that if you trying to be extraordinary by yourself, you will ruin the whole orchestra. I learned how to be in synch. When I was 17, I also lost my parents and started being a mother and father to my 13 year-old brother. There were 99 ways I could have gone the wrong way and only one way that was right and I chose the right one, I think. All this taught me to be what I am, and what will make me succeed on Mars One.

Who would you choose to take if you could?

No offense to everyone I know but I’d take my dog! I don’t know how I will take the loneliness of it and maybe the isolation chamber in the next stage will reveal that I can’t do it... but I don’t think it will.

"I want to see an Egyptian badge on something this big."

How does it make you feel to potentially be the first Egyptian astronaut the world has ever seen?

There are no words. They sent us an email last week that there will be a lot of media attention on us in the following weeks. I thought it would apply to the Americans or Europeans, but not to me or the Nigerian guy they chose. There was no media incentive for me to apply, it was just my dream. And yesterday there were calls from all over the world every three minutes; my phone wouldn’t charge fast enough! In the Middle East, we have never had the chance to report on something like this, so the interest was very big. I’m not selfish to do this, I want to see an Egyptian do something amazing, especially in space and scientific fields. Within the region, however, there is nobody else but me so I have quite a good chance to be chosen. Mars One aims to be diverse, and I am one of two Arabs and seven Africans that have been nominated. I would maybe smuggle a small flag into the spaceship, even if it’s forbidden, to put it on Mars.

Are you a Mars expert now?

I studied the material they sent us in preparation for the interviews front and back. I hate reading, but if it’s about space or the Ancient Egyptians, I just soak it up. I like to learn by doing so I was no more than an average student. I want to know how the universe is formed by going to Mars, go deeper, and see to believe rather than just read about it.

Explain to us what you picture your normal day on Mars to be like?

There will be various missions and two rovers handling the dirty work before a human being even gets there. We will then install tons and tons of solar panels, extract oxygen and nitrogen from the Martian atmosphere to later on produce water and adjust our environment. We are then going to have a green house. All these endeavors are of course not risk free but science agrees it is all possible. There just hasn’t been the money for it yet.

687 days in a year, an extra 40 minutes every day... What will you do with all the extra time?

It’s going to be uber-busy. They asked us during the interview if we would take the chance to return to Earth after three years if we could, and my immediate answer was to reject. I’m not going there to pick up an apple, I want to explore an entire planet. There is a point in the void where you lose sight of Earth and you can’t see Mars yet. It will require so much psychological training, it can’t even be simulated on Earth. It is similar to the Americans that set out to go to the New World when they couldn’t see it yet. But as soon as you see the famous red dot, it will all be worth it.

What are you more afraid of: the ten year preparation or actually living on Mars?

The journey there is the scariest. The psychological challenge is bigger than the physical one. Imagine being in a sardine can for seven months. I’m not scared of any of it because I want to see an Egyptian badge on something this big. However, as soon as we board that space craft we stop being Egyptian, or American, or German, because we are representing humanity.

"I'm not going there to pick up an apple, I want to discover an entire planet."

What will you do if the following will happen to you…?

… the space craft is damaged in a meteor shower, you are catapulted out of the space craft and you are infinitely spinning? (from Gravity)

(laughs) At such a point I would be aware there is not much I could do. I don’t think I would actually not look at how much oxygen I have left. It is going to be so quiet I would probably die before it runs out. I’d like to think I would die with a smile on my face though.

… you encounter a wormhole, go through it, and find yourself in a different galaxy where 1 hour is 70 years on Earth? (from Interstellar)

(laughs more) Tricky question. I try to live my life to the max everywhere I go. Having the opportunity to be the first one to touch a rock on Mars can’t be described with words. I will leave Earth for bigger things so I will not be looking back whether time passes or not.

… you get off the space craft on Mars and find that the automated habitat for you has been destroyed? (from Red Planet)

I thought about it a lot. We have ten years to prepare for these scenarios so I like to think about it. There will be no help. We could actually survive on Mars for two months without a habitat and we couldn’t communicate with Earth, even if I discover something extraordinary. But there is nothing much you can do. It would actually excite me though.

… you are not the only ones there? (from Mission to Mars)

What if I just find a CD there or see someone running? I could never imagine how I would react. I don’t even know how I would report it. If I was told not to follow something I discovered, I don’t know if I could stop. That is where the excitement blows the roof because we have discovered Mars from here, and I still get lost in Maadi! If there was life there and we hadn’t found out that far, it would be a huge threat to everyone. I would not be able to stop myself…

What will be the hardest thing to leave behind?

I know I will be leaving everything behind, including chocolate, but I will be able to make a big impact on humanity. I don’t mind if I just put my foot there and then die because that would be a great achievement already. If we find out there is nothing, absolutely nothing, we have to close that door. Therefore, finding nothing would be a great discovery.

The last day before you go to Mars: what will you be doing?

The last day will be too spiritual. I imagine my life will somewhat flash before my eyes. It’s so big. Even if we don’t make it but taking such a giant leap for all of mankind is humbling. I wish my parents were still alive to share it with me, hugging without speaking until I decide I am ready. There will no turning back. It's not like moving to Europe.

"Finding nothing would be a great discovery."

How big are your fears that it will maybe just not happen?

That’s actually the main challenge for this mission. I ask a lot of questions and I have asked many people whether it is possible and everybody agrees the technology exists. However, governments are not concerned right now so it will have to be privately funded. I know it’s a gamble but it is doable. I am in it all the way and if it works it will be the hit of a century so I’m going to stay positive and believe as much as the rest of the team.

Last but not least, being a Mars expert, tell us a fun fact about Mars…

I am 198 cm tall right now but I will grow 2 cm in the void because gravity will change my muscles and body. With the same amount of effort we can jump three times higher on Mars than on Earth due to gravity. There is also a 100 degree difference between light and shadow and of course the average temperature will be -60°C.

Photography by Mahmoud Asfour exclusively for CairoScene. Shot on location at The Mena House Hotel.