Ahmed Farid was just eight years old when he developed his own Atari game by following steps in a manual using computer codes. Back then in 1989, he still hadn't come into his own in the field of IT — all he knew was that he was passionately enthusiastic about anything related to computers.
by Farah El-Akkad photography courtesy Ahmed Farid
Ten years later, the gifted boy has grown into an ambitious man, a brilliant tough adventurer. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Management Tech, and a diploma in management from AUC, he was lucky to get into a full IT engineering scholarship program at IBM Egypt. “It was a full-time scholarship for a year. Afterwards, I was lucky to be one of the three students chosen to be hired by IBM. Working there opened up many great opportunities for me,” Farid says.
Today, Farid is the only Egyptian of 12 astronaut candidates who was selected for the NASA supported PoSSUM program, a non-profit suborbital research and education program devoted to the study of Earth’s upper atmosphere and the role it plays in the understanding of the global climate.
Farid, who has lived in Germany since 2005, landed his first job at the Institute for Economic Research based in Munich. He was later hired by Microsoft as a senior systems engineer. Goal-oriented and determined, Farid was selected by the German Space Operations Center (DLR), which is part of the International Space Station (ISS) and has been a member of the team for the last six years. “I received this email asking if I was interested in working at the DLR,” Farid recalls. “My first reaction was that this is a spam email and I usually used to reply to spam saying something like, “Please do not send me anything again,” but for some reason I replied to this email saying, “I am interested.”
But it wasn’t just chance that led him from there to NASA. “I believe things don’t happen by complete coincidence. You do not get to be one of the three chosen by IBM by coincidence, and you do not become one of the 12 astronaut candidates by coincidence — these are things you prepare for and work hard to achieve. The Space Operations team in Germany is chosen based on a long and systematic process of IQ tests, assessments and hard training. Even after passing these tests, you have to undergo a training of not less than six months in order to be certified. The team (including myself) are not more than 150 persons in the whole of Germany. The truth is, I had completely different plans but I believe all the hard work paid off. Nothing in my life is the way I pictured it, and I think this is why I am enjoying it - because sometimes God grants us better plans than the ones we had in mind.”
Farid’s first mission as a spacecraft controller was in cooperation with the International Space Station (ISS), which is a cooperation between the U.S, Canada and Moscow. “The ISS is more like a laboratory for experiments in different fields, such as medicine, physics and astronomy. To give you a clearer description, the place looks like a football pitch in space, where astronauts play, and it is linked to control centers in earth, two of which are located in NASA and the others are located in different countries such as Moscow, Japan and Germany,” he explains.
In the movie Gravity (2013) George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as stranded astronauts and the audience gets to see the less glamorous side of being an astronaut - like putting on a spacesuit, being disconnected from the world and dealing with gravity. “The movie was partially true but it does not show the real effort an astronaut makes. For instance, astronauts cannot put on a spacesuit alone by themselves, they need the help of two to three other people. It is not as easy as Bullock does in the film. The other part of it is, one has to have a pretty high fitness level in order to undergo gravity training,” Farid explains.
The young astronaut-in-training is also part of the International Space Federation in Paris, having been selected by the committee after presenting a paper in 2011. He has been a coach and a member of the Developing Countries Committee in South Africa since then.
But Farid’s goal is not only his career itself but also adding something for humanity. “It is not only about being successful or making money. A big part of it is about humanity. Why did I choose the field of IT from the start, why did I not choose to become a politician for example (no offense) because IT is a very peaceful field, no one hates it. For me being here is like being a doctor. My goal is to make something useful for human beings and future generations.”
Farid’s latest achievement is a nanotechnology project, called “Sweet” that is totally private and entirely his own. “Sweet involves a cubesat which is a small satellite that is launched into space and comes back to earth within a period of one year. Different experiments have been made using this type of technology. What I want to do is to help Africa through it. If we look at the numbers, more than a million people die in Africa each year because of water pollution, contaminated water and viruses such as Ebola. Basically the cubesat ‘sweet’ can actually be used to inspect and detect water quality in space. This would be the first cubesat ever to do such thing.”
Having passed Phase Zero, the project is currently at Phase A, which is the technical part. With the help of space engineering and environmental engineering professors at the TUM (Technical University of Munich), Farid aims to bring this project to light. “Of course this is not going to happen without funding. We need to dig for people from water organizations and those who are interested,” he says.
Farid’s family had a great influence on who he is today. His dad, a doctor who sacrificed his time and effort for his patients, particularly those who come from poorer classes, is his son’s premier role model. “I think part of why I am always thinking of adding a human touch to my work is because of my dad. Throughout my childhood I saw how people respected and honored him. This is what made me think that no matter what you do, you always have the choice to do it right and this is how people will remember you. The other unknown soldier is my mom. I honestly think she is the strongest woman I have ever seen and I seriously mean it when I say that if God had made me a woman, I would want to be her,” says Farid, who also looks up to actor Will Smith and late Nobel mathematician John Nash whose life story was told in A Beautiful Mind.
“It does not really matter who you are. I like people who are successful in whatever they do. Be they someone popular or someone who works in car garage."