By Ali Rizvi –
The odds of being an astronaut are 1:14200000 or 1 in 142 million. The odds of sky diving over the Mount Everest are 1:35500000 or 1 in 355 million. The odds of a Pakistani to visit the North and the South Pole are 1:20000000 or 1 in 200 million. And to say that a Pakistani woman has achieved all of this, might come as a surprise to many.
Namira Salim, the first Pakistani Astronaut and the only Pakistani member of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the only Pakistani to sky dive over the Mount Everest and to reach the North and the South Pole.
Namira Salim was shortlisted from 44,000 candidates and made it to the list of 100 Space Tourists. She was launched in the media personally by Sir Richard Branson, in the year 2006. She trained and qualified for her suborbital Spaceflight at NASTAR Center in the US under the supervision of Virgin Galactic.
Namira was awarded the country’s highest civil award, Tamgha-e-Imtiaz or the medal of excellence and is also an internationally renowned artist and peace activist.
In an exclusive interview to Pique Magazine, Namira Salim speaks to us about her achievements, her journey to the North and South Pole and her experience as founder of Virgin Galactic.
We know about Namira Salim as an astronaut, as the first Pakistani woman to travel the North and the South Pole, but we don’t know Namira Salim the child, your experiences while growing up and your greatest inspiration that motivated you to be the person that you are. Please tell us a little about that?
Space makes my DNA and I was born believing that I will grow up to become an astronaut. When I was very little, like 4 or 5 years old, I would cry and tell my parents that I didn’t want to play with toys but instead I cried to be sent to space. My beloved father and an ex-army man, who was well versed with the night sky, first introduced me to the stars. He taught me how to navigate the skies with the Pole star as the point of reference, then guiding me to the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Caseopia etc. I bought my first telescope when I was 14 years old. I became the first female member of the first Astronomy society of Pakistan in 1987. I regularly attended star gazing evenings during my high school and college years, and even created a spaceship –announcing my plans to go to space, a decade before becoming a Founder Astronaut of Virgin Galactic and being launched as First Pakistani Astronaut, in 2006.
Tell us about your experience as part of Virgin Galactic?
I am the first future South Asian Space Tourist and First future Pakistani Astronaut. I am a Founder Astronaut of Virgin Galactic and still await my spaceflight with Virgin Galactic, which is set to become the first spaceline of the world. Being a Founder, I am part of an exclusive club of 89 members who will be the first to go to space once commercial spaceflights begin.
This is about the birth of the private space industry which will provide access to space for all, like scientists, students, researchers, payloads and satellites at a much cheaper price and in an environmentally friendly manner.
Recently, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight which preceded the commencement of the actual commercial flights. While this is a setback, the accident is seen to have been caused due to a pilot error and no known design flaw in the spaceship. Therefore, with a back-up spaceship, 65 per cent complete, the test flight programme is expected to move forward to achieve the commencement of commercial spaceflights as soon as possible.
Before going to space you went to the North Pole. When you announced this decision to your family what was their reaction?
My family never expected me to take such drastic steps and it was never easy to convince them. However, when I returned safely and became a pioneer as the First Pakistani at the North and South Poles, it made them proud.
Tell us about your journey to the North Pole?
It was a tough one due to climate change. I was delayed for a week on the way to the Ice Camp at 89 degree North and conditions became life threatening due to the brutal weather conditions. Even the blue ice runway at Ice Camp broke but it was promptly rebuilt. When I made it to the North Pole I proudly hoisted the national flag and my universal peace flag, Peace Making with Nation Souls, as the First Pakistani ever!
Once you had travelled to the North Pole, did you not think that was enough that you then decided to go to the South Pole as well?
I was motivated to continue the journey and proceed to the North Pole because I was determined to convey another strong message of peace on behalf of Pakistan, in times which were very turbulent for our country when I embarked on my journey in December 2007. Besides that, I was also thrilled to become the first Pakistani at the South Pole.
In case, you don’t know, I am also the First Asian and first Pakistani to skydive (tandem) over Mount Everest during the first historic “Everest Skydives” in 2008.
You have worked as the honorary Consul of Pakistan to Monaco, tell us about that.
As the first Pakistani Astronaut and as Honourary Consul of Pakistan to Monaco, my first project was related to promoting space technology in Pakistan. I was greatly honoured when Thales Alenia Space, the largest European manufacturer of Space Systems and Satellites invited me to their plant in Cannes. I was given the most fascinating tour of their laboratories where space probes and satellites were in the making and they said, ‘you love space and we want to sell satellites to your country. Can you take us there officially to talk to SUPARCO? I can proudly say that I was successful in securing the official approval from Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff for Thales Alenia Space to visit Pakistan and to officially negotiate with those concerned. In my role as Consul, I received immense support, appreciation and admiration from the highest officials in Monaco and my colleagues were sad to see me go.
Did you have to convince your family before you took the flight into space?
My determination to join the Virgin Galactic Founder Astronaut Club, to go to space, came as a bit of a shock to my family. However, for most family members, it didn’t come as a surprise because I announced my plans to go to space since I was a child.
How excited are you about your experience in the Space flight?
I am inspired by the stars and am really excited to view earth from space, which appears as a world without borders and one world in a million, where it is enveloped in an aura of peace and radiates in oneness.