Among 20,000 applicants in a NASA contest for students, Gavin Vasandani stood out. The 15-year-old from a United Arab Emirates secondary school built an experiment to test spacecraft materials. Now, NASA will launch his and other winning student projects to the edge of space.

Vasandani’s victory comes amid deepening ties between the UAE and American space agencies. In 2016, the two countries’ space programs pledged to work together on future missions to Mars.

“The United Arab Emirates and the United States of America are long-standing allies and have deep economic, cultural and diplomatic ties,” says Khalifa Al Romaithi, chairman of the UAE Space Agency.

Space experiments deliver benefits that go well beyond advancing science. “The space sector serves as a catalyst for economic development and diversification, creating job opportunities and enabling scientists and engineers to become leaders of an industry that can bring huge benefits to our daily lives,” says Al Romaithi.

One of those future leaders may already be hard at work. The contest Vasandani entered is called Cubes in Space, a collaboration between nonprofit Idoodledu Inc., NASA and other partners. Students from all over the world can propose and build high-flying experiments. Vasandani and 99 other winners are getting to send theirs aloft on a NASA scientific balloon or rocket this August and September.

The hard part? Students must fit each project into a 40-millimeter cube.

What’s in the cube?

Here’s what Vasandani came up with: a test of multiple spacecraft materials with high-tech coatings of carbon nanotubes. His hopes are that the coated materials one day will help shield astronauts and equipment from the punishing radiation of outer space.

It was a thrill to get the notice his experiment was selected, Vasandani told the Khaleej Times. His coated spacecraft samples will fly almost 40,000 meters above the Earth aboard a NASA scientific balloon.

Vasandani told the newspaper he was inspired by the Emirates Mars Mission, the UAE’s planned 2020 launch of a spacecraft to study Earth’s neighboring planet. When launched, it will become the first mission to Mars by any Arab country.

On long-distance journeys like this beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field, radiation shielding is vital. Vasandani’s experiment could provide clues about how to make deep-space exploration safer for future explorers.

Since 2014, Cubes in Space has flown more than 600 experiments designed by students in 57 countries.

If you’re interested in participating, visit It will help to have what Vasandani had: imagination and a good teacher.

“My science teacher has always encouraged me to believe in my dreams,” Vasandani said.