Mahmoud is one of the space pioneers who helped launch Egypt-Sat 1 in Baikonour © OHB

Fateful phone calls and happy events

At the age of 22, Mahmoud Elsirafy was living the good life enjoying his vacation relaxing on the beach at Alexandria with a couple of friends. Then his father Ahmed rang and turned our Bremen-based colleague’s already very eventful life upside down.

At the age of 22, Mahmoud Elsirafy was living the good life enjoying his vacation relaxing on the beach at Alexandria with a couple of friends. Then his father Ahmed rang and turned our Bremen-based colleague’s already very eventful life upside down.

You have to come home straight away,” the phone roared. “They are recruiting engineers for a space programme. You have to apply,” his father exclaimed in a flurry of excitement. Mahmoud was not thrilled at the prospect of abandoning his vacation. Moreover, he already had a good job at the American company Silicone Expert in his home town of Banha, some fifty kilometres north of Cairo. He told his father “no” and was very surprised when, a few months later, he still received an invitation to an interview with the Egyptian National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Science. In the interim, his mother Nadra, former Director of a high school in Banha, had taken matters into her own hands. “She is pretty much the one who runs things at home and she commands a great deal of respect,” explains Mahmoud with a broad smile.

A marathon of interviews and pioneering work

Having received the invitation anyway, he went to the job interview, even returning for a second and third round. During the fourth interview, the former long-distance swimmer became impatient and asked politely whether the marathon of interviews would eventually come to an end. This comment earned him a large red “X” in his file. Mahmoud was annoyed because by now he wanted the job. Now, however, it appeared to be all over for him.

At the start of the new week, the young engineer went to work as usual, intent on leaving it all behind him. Then the phone rang again, and again a man roared down the line. This time it was another candidate who shared the taxi with Mahmoud by chance in the same day he got the large X. They never knew each other before, but they swapped phone numbers after 5 minutes in the taxi although they never saw each other again. This man wondered why Mahmoud wasn’t coming for the final interview as they called his name out two times.

Major misunderstanding! Now he had to get from Banha to Cairo at short notice and in the midst of the rush hour. Ahmed said he would drive. “Then we won’t get there until tomorrow morning, let me get behind the wheel,” pleaded Mahmoud. The patriarch, however, gave him a right telling-off: “You didn’t want any part of all this, and yet you’ve come so far. Trust in your destiny. Whatever is supposed to happen will happen, you need only to do your best and I believe that you have already done that. Now sit down and shut up.” With that, the now retired Undersecretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs taught his son the lesson of a lifetime.

“He was right. The path is mapped out. Not in the sense of passivity. This has much more to do with purpose than it does with fate. It is about the profound confidence that everything has a purpose and will turn out well,” philosophises Mahmoud. He is a person who, by nature, thinks a lot about life and cooperation. He quotes an Egyptian proverb according to which “you cannot clap with one hand.” It is a favourite of his, and he explains: “Every individual, no matter whether a janitor or a CEO, plays an important role in the team. The key to successful cooperation is mutual respect in the team and for each person to do his or her job well, this will definitely happen after putting the correct person in the correct position.”

The path to space exploration and OHB

Two months after the aforementioned car ride, at the tender age of 23, Mahmoud Elsirafy left for a six-year stay in the Ukraine. There, he became one of 34 space pioneers who developed and built the first Egyptian remote sensing satellite, “Egypt-Sat 1” with the Ukrainian experts. It was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in 2007. Back at ground control in Cairo, things quickly became too dull for Mahmoud. A couple of budget cuts and an excursion into self-employment (security systems) later, in his late twenties, he was captivated by the idea of increasing his qualifications. “Management,” he says by way of explaining his decision “is frequently the biggest problem when it comes to bringing projects to a successful conclusion.” He earned his diploma in project management in Cairo and his master of science in space management at the International Space University ISU in Strasbourg. This involved working with people from 25 countries, and he very much enjoyed the international setting. It was here that he heard about OHB and the newly commissioned Galileo project for the first time. In 2011 he applied for a 3-month internship and was immediately “impressed by the young, dynamic team, the shortcuts by means of which things were sometimes settled in the hallway so that matters could proceed faster.” Mahmoud liked it here and wanted to stay. That meant pulling out all the stops, because his mother didn’t like the idea one bit. She wanted to have her son nearby and she wanted him finally to start a family. Ultimately, Mahmoud only succeeded in winning over Nadra when his uncle, who completed his PhD in Germany in the 1960s, supported him a lot, when he furthermore showed her a permanent employment contract (which means for her that he will at least stop jumping from one country to another), and also he promised to start a family in the near future.

A reluctant midwife

A promise is a promise: Shortly thereafter, he became acquainted with his future bride Laila through a friend in the USA. She was a banker in Cairo, enjoyed travelling and could well envision living in Germany. Over the course of a year, the two corresponded, got to know one another better and fell in love. They now live in the Borgfeld section of Bremen on the boundary to Lilienthal. It is a very green and pleasantly rural place where the Elsirafys feel right at home. On the topic of “racist hostility”, Mahmoud shakes his head and says: “Of course some people give you strange looks, but that happens here just as in Egypt or anywhere else in the world.” There’s not a trace of it in his immediate vicinity, because the neighbours all turned out for the birth of his first child.

The fantastic story began when Laila called Mahmoud and said: “Come home. It’s all about to kick off here.” He wasn’t about to let himself be hurried since the official due date was still a month away. Upon arrival, however, he discovered his wife screaming on the floor. The expectant father called the doctor and carried her to bed. More and more neighbours assembled to point the ambulance in the right direction, because the Elsirafys' house is a little off the beaten path. However, the emergency physician was making little headway through the evening rush-hour traffic. Mahmoud rushed to and fro like mad, arriving back at his wife’s bedside just in time to catch the child in his hands. When the paramedics arrived shortly thereafter and asked whether he wanted to cut the umbilical cord, he replied drily: “Sure, why not? I’ve done all the rest myself until now.” It no longer mattered that the couple had actually been told to expect a daughter. Everyone was happy and content with little Adam.

It was all supposed to be different with the second child. “We’re going to make it to hospital this time,” was the ambitious plan. When loud screams heralded the spectacle again a month before the official due date, Mahmoud, not hesitating for a second, immediately bundled his wife into the car. With tyres squealing, he drove her to the local St Joseph’s Hospital. He ran into admissions shouting and waving and rushed back to the car. There, the inevitable happened: before the eyes of the orderlies, his little daughter Jasmine (this time it really was a girl) slid right into his hands. For this, Mahmoud was justifiably awarded a double honorary doctorate in medicine by his colleagues from the Galileo project.

Off to new horizons

The father of two spent seven years – most recently as a Head of Project Management Office – working closely with the team on a total of 22 Galileo satellites. The now 40-year-old has assumed the role of AIT manager in the Electra programme. He enjoys rising to new, complex challenges, trying never to stay in his comfort zone. “It’s like a puzzle. You have to achieve a high standard of quality for a very complicated high-tech product within a short time,” he explains, quoting Arthur C. Clarke to describe more closely the work done here: “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.” According to him, that’s what OHB does. Here, one has the chance to take responsibility. “That is fraught with difficulty for some types of people. That has to be clear in your mind; you have to be made for it. I want to keep learning constantly. Everyone should want that,” says Mahmoud, adding: “I want to sell ten to 20 Electra designs. People think that I’m a dreamer, but we’ll see”. . . .

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