INTERVIEW - Namira Salim

Written by Muhammad Omar Iftikhar  •  Features  •  December 2012 PDF Print E-mail

“I find my title of ‘First Pakistani Astronaut’ very special…perhaps, it’s even better than being a Princess!” – Namira Salim, Pakistan’s first astronaut and the founding member of Virgin Galactic, in this exclusive interview.

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. 

Muhammad Omar Iftikhar is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia. He writes on issues and social activism.

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