In 2006, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting launched her as the “First Pakistani Astronaut.”
“I am a global citizen,” Namira Salim tells me, “and I literally live in the stars.”
She says this quite simply, as if it’s a matter of fact. Namira is a space diplomat, trained as an astronaut, a proponent of space tourism and hopes to be soaring into space soon. When she does so, she will be the first Pakistani to go to space.
“I keep reading captions where I am touted to be ‘the first Pakistani woman who will go to space’. But I will actually be the first Pakistani,” she smiles.
Already, she is the ‘first’ Pakistani to have reached the North Pole, the South Pole and the first Asian to have sky-dived off Mount Everest.
Now, she has her sights on space. “I always wanted to go see the stars,” she smiles. “As a child, I remember how my father showed me the Pole Star and different constellations. Ever since then, I have wanted to go.”
Her dream may just get realised soon. British business magnate Richard Branson’s first commercial space liner, Virgin Galactic, is primed to be shooting to the stars, and Namira has been short-listed as part of the team that will be taking the flight.
And as she talks about orbs, satellites, space stations and the concept of peace on earth through space, Namira gives me a glimpse into her unique world.
It’s easy to get lost in our cocoons, where politics, crime and social media battles take over our minds. It’s easy to forget that there’s a whole world out there, open to exploration, brimming with possibilities. Our children aren’t often aware of the many avenues that they could pursue. Someone like Namira Salim can help widen perspectives.
Currently based in Monaco, Namira doesn’t visit Pakistan often although her green passport has traveled the world over. When I meet her, she is visiting Karachi to attend an event.
50 years ago, when the first men stepped on to the moon, the company’s Speedmaster became the first watch to be worn on the moon. To commemorate this, Omega has recreated the Speedmaster or ‘Moonwatch’ and Namira was invited a guest of honour as part of the celebrations taking part in Pakistan.
They couldn’t have chosen a better representative. Namira talks at length about how the world is entering a new Space Age. Space, the final frontier, is apparently about to open up to all mankind. “It will be just like taking a flight,” says Namira.
“Imagine the possibilities. A singer could have a concert in space. Medical experiments could be carried out there. A private investor could go to asteroids and mine there and make great new discoveries. Space tourism is a reality.”
According to Namira, the Artemis program, a spaceflight programme carried out by NASA, is forming a coalition of nations that will form a base on the moon by 2024 and also return the next man and the first woman on the moon. She also talks about a concept close to her heart, the possibility of creating peace on earth, through space.
“When astronauts go up to space, they experience a paradigm shift,” says Namira. “They see the world going further and further away; the political boundaries disappear, then all they see is continents and then, they just see the globe. When they come back, they have a whole new perspective and all they want to do is work for peace on earth.”
She continues, “The non-profit NGO that I run, Space Trust, has been instrumental as a proponent of the first space summit, where world leaders can meet at an international space center. The first International Space Station is in the low Earth orbit and astronauts from different nations operate there. But now that space is commercial, this can also be a location where leaders meet and look at the world from above. They can begin thinking for humanity as a whole, transcending political borders.
“This is an extension of space diplomacy, the way it is defined at present. Right now, space diplomacy enjoins that the objects that nations send out into space are not harmful to another nation or to the environment as a whole. But this concept can also be extended to work towards world peace in the future.”
Namira’s commitment to the promotion of space diplomacy and space tourism has allowed her to interact with major players in the global space industry. She has held conferences around the world, including one with former congressman and now the administrator of NASA, Jim Bridenstine.
Was it difficult for her Pakistani family to come to terms with the unconventional paths that she chose for herself?
“Initially, they supported me when they thought that these were just temporary interests but later, my mother would worry a lot,” says Namira. “She was, of course, upset that I didn’t follow conventions and get married and have children. But I was born with this DNA and these dreams and I have been living them, reaching the poles, sky-diving and now, wanting to go to space. This is all that have wanted to do.”
“I remember when I went to the North Pole, my mother didn’t mind but then, when I was planning to reach the South Pole, my whole family was planning a vacation. I was too scared to tell them that I would be going, so I wrote a note and left it for my mother to read.”
“She worried the most when I was planning to sky-dive from Everest. This was in 2008, when the first sky-dives were made from the peak and before my jump, 17 Swiss jumpers perished in a plane crash. This was the same airline that I had flown in from Kathmandu to the Himalayas. My mother called me and asked me if I was crazy but I told her that I had made up my mind."
"Then, two of my fellow jumpers had very bad accidents. One of the girls broke all her bones. My mother would read all this in the newspapers and fret. The weather was very unreliable back then. We would start preparing and then we would see these dark clouds looming forward and wouldn’t be able to see anything.”
“Finally, I did make my jump and it was in great weather.”
For her many achievements, the Pakistani government awarded Namira the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in 2011. She is also on the brink of launching a singing career on the US — a talent that she discovered she has – and her first song is aptly titled ‘Follow Me to the Moon’.
Has her nationality ever been an impediment in getting international heavyweights to take her seriously? And has her gender ever been an obstacle? “Not at all. I know what I am talking about, I am dedicated to it and through my NGO, I have managed to create awareness about peace in space. I think people respect that.”
She knows so much about space – and yet, she hasn’t been there yet. Is going one day become an obsession for her? “I do want to go one day but literally, I live in the stars. They surround me completely!”
And the sky is the limit for her – as it is for every individual, every Pakistani, man or woman. It’s easy to forget this – but it’s a thought worth remembering.