Namira Salim

Muham­mad Omar Iftikhar talks to Namira Salim, Pak­istan’s first as­tro­naut and the found­ing mem­ber of Vir­gin Galac­tic, in this ex­clu­sive in­ter­view.

Southasia - - Contents -

An ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Pak­istan’s first as­tro­naut

Namira Salim will be­come the first Pak­istani to travel into space. The Pak­istan Em­bassy in the UAE re­cently hon­ored her for her ser­vices. In ad­di­tion to space ex­plo­ration, Namira is also the first Pak­istani

to reach the North and South Poles and the first South Asian to skydive over Mount Ever­est.

How did you join the Vir­gin Galac­tic Founders club and why?

I al­ways be­lieved that I was born to go into space. I could not pur­sue my ed­u­ca­tion in as­tro­physics but al­ways kept the spark alive. Af­ter com­plet­ing high school, I be­came the first fe­male mem­ber of the as­tron­omy so­ci­ety of Pak­istan (AMASTROPAK). Dur­ing my ca­reer as a de­signer of dec­o­ra­tive arts and un­der my pri­vate la­bel, A Soul Af­fair, I cre­ated art in­spired by the night sky. It was then that I heard about the US $10 Mil­lion An­sari X-Prize win­ning flight, the first pri­vate space­flight in his­tory to break into or­bit in Oc­to­ber 2004. Sir Richard Bran­son li­censed this tech­nol­ogy and hence Vir­gin Galac­tic was born. I joined Vir­gin Galac­tic in 2005 as a found­ing mem­ber and the only Pak­istani.

You were also the first Pak­istani to reach the North and the South Poles and be­came the first Asian to skydive from above Mount Ever­est. How does it feel to have done all this?

In essence, it was about hav­ing faith and fol­low­ing my in­ner voice. It feels great to know that I suc­ceeded in test­ing the lim­its I set out for my­self and it gives me rea­son to be­lieve that I could go fur­ther. What kind of train­ing did you take to be able to re­sist G-force in a weight­less en­vi­ron­ment?

I had train­ing for sub-or­bital space­flight. I trained in the world’s most ad­vanced high per­for­mance cen­trifuge, the STS-400, at the Nastar Cen­ter in the U.S un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Vir­gin Galac­tic. It was a full sim­u­la­tion of how the ac­tual space­flight will be dur­ing launch/re­lease, rocket mo­tor ig­ni­tion, climb to al­ti­tude, weight­less­ness and re-en­try into the Earth’s at­mos­phere. The train­ing process as­sessed my abil­ity to tol­er­ate and adapt to in­creas­ing grav­i­ta­tional forces and mo­tion sick­ness dur­ing the space flight. Space ex­plo­ration is an un­con­ven­tional field that no Pak­istani woman has en­tered. Was it dif­fi­cult for you to con­vince your fam­ily?

My fam­ily al­ways knew about my pas­sion for the stars and space travel. How­ever, they were in for a shock when I broke the news about want­ing to be­come a founder at Vir­gin Galac­tic. No one could have imag­ined pri­vate space­flight be­com­ing a re­al­ity in

our life­times. It was not easy con­vinc­ing my fam­ily, as they were con­cerned about my safety. I was for­tu­nate when Sir Richard Bran­son vis­ited Dubai in March 2006, which is my sec­ond home and per­son­ally in­tro­duced me to the world as one of the ear­li­est founders of Vir­gin Galac­tic. My fam­ily met him and the en­tire Vir­gin Galac­tic team. The government of Pak­istan of­fi­cially de­clared me as the ‘First Pak­istani As­tro­naut’ in Au­gust 2006. Since then, my fam­ily has been com­fort­able with my dream for space ex­plo­ration. You were one of the 100 peo­ple short­listed from a group of 44,000 as­tro­nauts who will travel to space, mak­ing you the first Pak­istani to do so. How does it feel?

I find my ti­tle of “First Pak­istani As­tro­naut” very spe­cial and I could not have wished for a greater honor. Per­haps, it’s even bet­ter than be­ing a Princess! Did you al­ways want to be a space ex­plorer or did you have other as­pi­ra­tions while grow­ing up?

I al­ways wanted to be an as­tro­naut and ex­plor­ing space was in my DNA. Dur­ing my child­hood, I was very cre­ative and al­ways fol­lowed my in­ner voice. When I was in 7th grade, I told my­self that one day I must reach the high­est of skies and touch the deep­est of oceans. Later, I also be­came a Pro­fes­sion­als As­so­ci­a­tion of Div­ing In­struc­tors (PADI)-cer­ti­fied ad­vanced scuba diver. My other ac­tiv­i­ties and as­pi­ra­tions have re­volved around art, po­etry and mu­sic - my in­born tal­ents. What were the most mem­o­rable mo­ments of your train­ing?

It was a para­dox! At first, I felt com­pletely weighed down by the G Forces and felt as if an elephant was crush­ing me, but be­fore I knew it, I was float­ing in space, as light as a feather...

Do you think that space travel can be­come a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise?

Vir­gin Galac­tic is the first pri­vate/ com­mer­cial space­line of the world. This is in­deed the ad­vent of the pri­vate space in­dus­try, which will soon be­come a con­sumer in­dus­try. Be­ing a founder of Vir­gin Galac­tic means that we are mak­ing space ac­ces­si­ble to the com­mon man, to sci­en­tists, re­searchers, stu­dents, pay­loads and satel­lites in the near fu­ture. This is not just a fun ride for the rich and fa­mous. Are there av­enues for as­pir­ing as­tro­nauts in Pak­istan to ac­quire train­ing?

One day, not too far from now, many Pak­ista­nis will have the op­por­tu­nity to take a pri­vate space­flight at an af­ford­able price. Ap­pro­pri­ate train­ing would pre­cede the flight. What is your mes­sage for the youth of Pak­istan?

Be­lieve in your­self and fol­low your dreams but never give up on your val­ues.

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