As they say, space is the final frontier, and there is nothing quite as fulfilling as conquering that frontier. A select few countries in the world have been able to send humans into space, and even fewer have the distinction of having women to achieve this feat.
With Pakistani women conquering many challenges and proving their mettle – and receiving various plaudits and global recognition as a testament -- noteworthy progress has been made in breaking gender stereotypes in the country. And women like Namira Salim intend to shatter the glass ceiling further – all the way to the heavens.
Becoming the face of space ambitions of Pakistani women, Karachi born Namira Salim has the distinction of becoming the first “First Pakistani Astronaut,” as she was recognized by Pakistan’s information ministry in August 2006. Upon completing her sub-orbital flight training, Salim presented her certificate to President Musharraf. The Pakistani government has also recognized her close affiliation with SUPARCO. A self-confessed astronomy geek, Salim says “I have spent all my life under the stars, so the desire to venture into space came naturally.”
Namira was one of the earliest founders of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic commercial space liner project. That initiative recently launched its first test flight into space with a passenger on board, which was piloted by David Mackay and Mike Masucci, and had Beth Moses on board as the passenger. The company intends to complete its testing phase this year following which the 100 pre-qualified potential astronauts – which includes Salim, are expected be able to venture about 100 kilometers above the Earth and experience weightlessness for a few minutes, too.
To qualify for the project, Namira completed her sub-orbital flight training at the STS-400, a high powered centrifuge that is housed at the Nastar Centre in the United States. Talking to the press recently, she said, “This was a full simulation and an immersive experience into the way the actual spaceflight would be during launch/release, rocket motor ignition and the climb to altitude, weightlessness, and later the 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 my potential sub-orbital space flight.”
Besides her space ambitions, Namira has put Pakistan’s flag on the North and the South Pole, and has also skydived over Mount Everest. She rates her expedition to Antarctica amongst her most memorable experiences, stating “It was really living on the Ice Camp in Antarctica at 80 degrees south for 10 days which I enjoyed the most, just before heading for the South Pole in January 2008. It was amazing to see the midnight sun and the 24-hour long daylight as the sky blushed in red-orange hues towards the close of the day, yet remained well-lit.”
Namira is hopeful that young Pakistani women will follow her lead to achieve the impossible. She takes pride in the fact that being a woman she is also set to be South Asia’s first space tourist and has already been officially recognized as Pakistan’s first astronaut. She is currently developing the Cube Satellite which is set to be launched in 2020 and will play out the messages of peace from global leaders while in orbit.