“I find my title of ‘First Pakistani Astronaut’ very special…perhaps, it’s even better than being a Princess!” – said Namira Salim, Pakistan’s first astronaut and the founding member of Virgin Galactic, in this exclusive interview.
1. You have had a fascinating life. Tell us about growing up in Pakistan, and how your childhood impacted your life?
What I recall vividly about my childhood is, that my beloved father first introduced me to the stars. He learned to navigate them as an ex-army officer. My mother was the artist and as a child, I first learnt to draw, copying her charcoal sketches. I had a simple childhood and was not born with a golden spoon in my mouth. I went to public schools wherever my father was posted and my mother, being a pure homemaker, didn’t take to the idea of boarding schools.
Since early childhood, I took to the stars and by the time I entered my teens, I knew just one thing… that I would grow up to become an astronaut and that, I didn’t hesitate to declare this to cousins and friends. very early in life! If it wasn’t for my Pakistani roots and the diversity of the cultures I have matured in, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
2. You then went on to the prestigious Columbia University in New York. How did that experience groom you for your future adventures?
Earning an Ivy League Master degree in International Affairs from Columbia University was a dream which I was determined to realize. During my graduation party, I exhibited two mixed media sculptures which I created during my last semester (as part of liberal arts electives). This will sound almost unreal… but, the first, was a dream word, in which I would live in solitude and create and second, a space ship!
And… I literally declared at this party, “From now on, I will live in solitude and create and next, I am going to space!!!” I left Columbia in 1996 with the resolve that I would promote peace through art, music, poetry, which I accomplished through solo exhibits at top UN Summits. Then a decade later, in 2006, came, Virgin Galactic and me, spearheading space tourism on behalf of Pakistan. The rest is history… in the making!
3. Being a Pakistani, what made you think of exploring the horizons and taking such risks?
The faith in my inner voice, which is indeed, our guiding star and the voice of God within.
4. How did you join the Virgin Galactic Founder Astronaut club and why?
We took birth during the era of space exploration and I am fortunate to be a pioneer in joining what has evolved, in my lifetime, as the next space age – the private space industry. This is about a dream I was born with and one I always kept alive. One day,I stumbled upon the news that Sir Richard Branson was set to license the technology of SpaceShipOne – the first private space ship to have broken the orbit. I did not wait even one minute! I called Virgin Galactic when they had not even set up offices and after long drawn negotiations, whereby, I made it known that all I wanted was, to become the first Pakistani Astronaut.
Though it was a tough competition, I was embraced with open arms since I live between Monaco and Dubai and brought diversity to the Founder Astronaut Club. Subsequently, in August 2006, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of Pakistan, officially introduced me to the nation as the “First Pakistani Astronaut.” In essence, if you believe in your convictions strongly and keepconnected, you can reach for the stars.
5. 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?
I was once described as the one who collects “Firsts!” That has actually turned out to be the case,wrt all my polar exploits and potential spaceflight! My pioneering spirit was always driven by the incentive of becoming the “First” and kept me going further.
However, pioneering the three poles of the world in my own unique way, by raising my peace flag “Peace Making with Nation Souls” was my way of testing my limits and conveying that Pakistan is indeed, a tolerant nation.
6. You were one of the 89 Foundersof Virgin Galactic shortlisted from a group of 44,000 astronauts who will travel into space, making you the first Pakistani to do so. How do you feel?
Being the First Pakistani Astronaut is what drives me and makes me particularly, proud. However, after this long journey, what gives me a greater sense of pride is that I have inspired others to follow their dreams and excel in all fields of life.
In October 2007, I successfully qualified to go to space after completing my suborbital spaceflight training. On 12th March 2009, I also had the un-paralleled opportunity of sending the national and my peace flag to space aboard Swedish Space Corporation’s Rexus-6 Rocket. My patriotism knows no bounds!
7. You are one of the founders of Virgin Galactic and the first South Asian space tourist. Describe what your journey has been like so far?
Yes, being the First Pakistani Astronaut, helps me collect many other firsts! I will insha’Allah become the First South Asian Space Tourist and also the first person from Monaco and first woman from Dubai to break orbits! The journey has helped me touch all three poles of the world and above all, to inspire others by testing my own limits when breaking boundaries.
8. Did you always want to be a space explorer or did you have other aspirations while growing up?
I have always said that space makes my DNA. I was born believing that I would go to space one day. I was always enchanted by the mystery of the night sky and the beauty of the stars and felt a deep connection – as if I belonged there. In fact, as a child I always asked my parents not for toys, but – to take me to the stars.
During my teenage years, I confidently told my cousins and friends that I would grow up to become an astronaut. Besides that, I have other inborn creative talents, like a natural flair art &interior design, a singing talent, a natural inclination towards poetry, which I am very passionate about.
9. Has the crash of SpaceShipTwo made you nervous? What are your thoughts about it?
No, it has not at all made me nervous because I believe that supporting the private space industry, which will provide access to space for all, is about supporting the dream of every person who has ever dreamed of going to space. Moreover, the basic design of SpaceShipTwo is based on a tested technology.
After-crash investigations have revealed that the accident was a result of a pilot error since he prematurely deployed a certain mechanism which led to the “disintegration” of the spaceship, while the fuel tanks and rocket motor engine remained “intact.” There was “no explosion” involved. The second pilot ejected from a very high altitude and miraculously survived.
As one of the most active spokespersons and one of the earliest Founders of Virgin Galactic, my support for the project was evident when the following media outlets interviewed me days after the crash: BBC World News, BBC News, Sky News Live, BBC World Service, BBC Asian News Network, BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio 4 Live, BBC Breakfast show,Talk Radio Europe Live, Huffington Post&Khaleej Times of Dubai.
10. How do you see this incident affecting space tourism?
This accident is a set back; however, seen as a teething problem. The pilot who lost his life, has sacrificed for us all. The private space industry will learn from it but, will not let this incident deter its resolve. Yes, we will have delays, but so far, Virgin is still leading the way in becoming the first private space-line of the world.
Despite this accident, I supported the evolving private space industry which is the future of space technology and which will provide access to space for dreamers, researchers, scientists, students, low earth orbit satellites and payloads. The regulatory bodies for space tourism in the US encourage innovation and space agencies like NASA, having stopped its shuttle programme, are depending heavily on private spaceflight. So, as far as industry players and dreamers like me are concerned, there is no looking back!
11. How would you describe SirRichard Branson? What was your experience while working with him?
Richard is very kind, gentle and extremely patient and when he is in public or at our events and launches, he is in demand! However, he never fails to smile and gives everyone a listening ear, no matter how impossible it may be!! I continued to work on next milestone events with him as a Founder. I can say that I am perhaps, the luckiest of all the 89 Founders of Virgin Galactic.
I jointed the Virgin Galactic Founder Astronaut Club in January 2006. InMarch 2006, Sir Richard Branson, Chairman Virgin Group, personally introduced me to the world press in Dubai as one of the earliest Founders of Virgin Galactic. This launch, which was aimed at sourcing an investor for Virgin Galactic, landed Virgin its biggest stakeholder in Aabar Investments PJS, worth $380 Million.
12. You have explored many artistic avenues – sculpture, music, poetry, art – besides being a peace activist. Through which of these have you truly expressed yourself?
Deep down, I’m a true artist and I express myself best through the integration of art, poetry and music. I have created innovative art with built-in music and messages in the voices of world leaders to promoted peace and goodwill at the SAARC Summit in January 2004, the United Nations General Assembly (New York) in May 2002 and during UNESCO’s Executive Board (Paris) in October 2000.
I hope to make more time in future for my creative aspirations and specially singing ghazals, which for which my favourite singer, the late ghazal maestro, Jagjit Singh, always encouraged me. In 2003, I won the third prize in the Jagjit Sigh singing competition in Dubai – which was held in the presence of both Jagjit and Chitra Singh!
13. You are currently Pakistan’s Consul General in Monaco? How did this happen? Are there many Pakistanis living in Monaco?
I personally worked on getting diplomatic relations established between Pakistan and Monaco. It was a long process which I began in 2003 and finally, due to several bureaucratic hurdles, the historic accreditation between Pakistan & Monaco took place in February 2009.n Monaco, we have Honourary Consuls and the Ambassador of Pakistan to France is also the accredited Ambassador to Monaco.
On 1st August 2011, His Serene Highness Prince Albert II, the Sovereign Prince of Monaco accepted my nomination as the first Honourary Consul of Pakistan to the Principality of Monaco. On 29th March 2012, His Serene Highness, the Prince inaugurated the first Consulate of Pakistan to Monaco in the presence of the highest Monegasque authorities.Regretfully, in November 2013, the current government decided to end the tenure of allHonourary Consuls of Pakistan abroad.
Since Honourary Consuls are usually appointed for life and are not political appointees, this came as a big surprise. Though I have been approached to re-apply, I am very fulfilled at promoting Pakistan to the maximum of my potential. Being Honourary Consul is one thing, but spearheading the entire diplomatic process, from start to finish is another.,, and that too, gain as “First!” (Additional information, if space permits).
During my tenure, I got Thales Alenia Space, Europe’s largest manufacturer of satellites and space systems the official permission from Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct business with SUPARCO, our space agency. Ialso established a partnership between Prince Albert II Foundation for the environment and Pakistan’s Earthquake Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) with each party contributing 150,000 Euros for an environmental project in Pakistan.
In cooperation with ERRA, I also dedicated an all-girl Higher Secondary School to the Sovereign Prince of Monaco, which he accepted to be named after him in 2013 as: “H.S.H. Prince Albert II Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Bagh, AJK.” The cost of this school is approximately $500,000 and was totally funded by the Government of Pakistan. This dedication was in recognition of Monaco’s timely assistance during our earthquake of 2005 and our floods of 2010.
14. Do you have any plans to work for youth and women’s development in Pakistan?
I keep receiving feedback and emails from those, whose lives have changed following my example, in one way or another. Most in this pool, represent youth and women. I am very much interested in youth and women’s development. In 1993, I became the Founding President of AIESEC in Pakistan, the largest student run NGO of the world, which promotes peace and international cooperation through corporate and cultural exchange programs. AIESEC – a French acronym for the International Association of Students in Economics and Business Management, has a consultative status with the United Nations. Due to this, many Pakistani graduates had an opportunity to find jobs andlucrative careers abroad. Moreover, my ongoing contribution will be to promote global peace in the midst of the turbulent times facing our nation.
Namira Salim is the Pakistanâ€™s first astronaut who has reached to the sky of success and has made Pakistan Proud with her achievements.