Omar Samra is reaching for the moon. He was the first Egyptian to ascend to the summit of Mount Everest. He was also the first of his countrymen to climb the highest peaks on the other six continents. Soon, he plans to go even higher. In 2015, Samra is set to become the first Egyptian in space.
Last December, Samra spent a week at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral competing for the chance to experience a space flight. It was a contest sponsored by the AXE personal care product company, and Samra was among twenty-three who made the grade out of a final international field of more than one hundred. The contestants were put through an astronaut training program that included a range of challenges: a military assault course, fighter jet maneuvers, a zero gravity flight, and exams on physics and space knowledge. The selection committee was chaired by Buzz Aldrin, the second man, after Apollo 11 crewmate Neil Armstrong, to walk on the surface of the moon. Samra says that what excites him most is the enigma of space and limitless possibilities of it.
For Samra, 35, space travel was a childhood dream, if not a very likely one to fulfill given that he suffers from asthma. Another obstacle was Egypt’s lack of a space program. After graduating from the American University in Cairo in 2002, with a degree in economics, he worked in mergers and acquisitions for HSBC bank. One day a friend convinced him to go on a bicycle trek across Spain; it proved an adventure that would lead to many more, including a journey in 2009 to the mountains of West Papua in Indonesia where he had an epiphany. “That experience was a culmination of the sense of clarity I always get when I’m in the mountains—when the pressures of society and daily life and what you ‘ought’ to be doing just pale into insignificance,” he explains. “All that’s left is what your passion is and what you want to do with your heart.”
A week after returning home, Samra resigned from his corporate job and started his own adventure travel company, Wild Guanabana, named after a fruit in Costa Rica. The move was typical of Samra’s appetite for impossible challenges: the global economy had just sunk into a recession, and Egypt and the rest of the Middle East was about to be engulfed in the tumult of the Arab Spring. Yet Wild Guanabana has proved a success. With the company’s emphasis on engaging local cultures, and promoting voluntourism, with trips to destinations such as rural villages in Thailand and animal sanctuaries in Cambodia, Samra bucks the notion that Arabs are only interested in luxury travel.
When he embarks on his own trip of a lifetime next year, Samra will board a two-seater Lynx spacecraft and jet sixty-two miles into space at three times the speed of sound. After gliding in outer space for five minutes and experiencing weightlessness, the Lynx will complete a parabolic flight then land on a standard runway either in California’s Mojave Desert or on the Caribbean island of Curacao. Developer XCOR Aerospace hopes the Lynx will pioneer commercial space travel; tickets for space tourists are going for $95,000 a seat. “An adventure is doing something new, something that is slightly out of your comfort zone,” Samra says. Nicely put, by the man who turned a bicycle ride in the countryside into a journey toward the moon.