Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Catching Up With Namira Salim ’92

In March 2006 Sir Richard Branson introduced Namira Salim ’92 to the world as the “first female astronaut from Dubai.” Salim, a native of Pakistan who now calls Dubai home, has dreamed of space travel since she was a child. That dream is slowly becoming a reality, as Sir Branson’s Virgin Galactic Astronaut Club continues testing and planning for the first private space flight. Salim, an artist and experienced adventurer, calls herself a “global ambassador of peace.” She studied international business at Hofstra and earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

How did you come to be involved with the Virgin Galactic Astronaut Club? And what inspired you to go into space?
I was casually browsing the Internet one day when I came across news about the first private spaceflight and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic looking to commence spaceflights. I simply picked up the phone and joined the Virgin Galactic Founder Astronaut Club early in the game. It was an investment and a privilege to become involved in the development of the private space industry. My involvement with Virgin, which I wanted to keep quiet, quickly found a way into the international press. News traveled to Pakistan instantly, and the government officially announced me as the “first Pakistani astronaut” in August 2006. Going to space is a childhood dream. I remember telling cousins and friends during my teenage years that I would grow up to become an astronaut! On my 14th birthday, my parents gifted me my first telescope. Direct involvement with space camps was not possible in Pakistan. But I found my own unique ways of keeping the dream alive. Just after high school, I became the first female member of AmAstroPak, the first astronomy society of Pakistan, and it was during my years at Hofstra that I enjoyed star-gazing parties at the northeastern tip of Long Island, in a small town called Southold.

What kind of physical and psychological training have you had to undergo in preparation for the spaceflight?
General physical fitness is always a bonus. However, our suborbital spaceflight with Virgin is unlike a regular vertical rocket launch, which can be very demanding on the body. The design of our spaceship is based on SpaceShipTwo, which was the first private spaceship in history, and today has a place of honor at the Smithsonian. The spaceship is attached to a mothership, which carries it to 50,000 feet. Subsequently, the rocket motor engine is fired and the spaceship is released
from this altitude to break the orbit, which lies 100 km above Earth. Not being a typical vertical launch, this is far easier on the body and therefore makes our technology commercially viable. My main training took place in the STS-400 Simulator, the world’s most advanced high performance centrifuge, under the supervision of Virgin Galactic in the United States. The entire flight was simulated from launch to blasting into space, from breaking the orbit to floating in zero G and finally, re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

How have you been able to apply the skills that you learned at Hofstra – both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities – in your current work and dealings with others?
I was most active at Hofstra with extracurricular activities, where I got all my confidence. I was chairwoman of the International Students Organization, a student senator and a member of AIESEC. [Editor’s note: AIESEC is an international, youth-run organization that provides a
platform for leadership development.] After graduation, with my two brothers, Nabil and Sajil, who also went to Hofstra, I took the initiative to become the founding president of AIESEC in Pakistan in 1992. This gave me exposure to international conferences, and opportunities to meet with leaders from the private and public sectors who instilled further confidence and inspired me to pursue my dreams.

Which professors were an inspiration?
Dr. Rusty Moore is my favorite. What I loved about her classes was that I could be creative, and I could be myself. Her supportive and gentle demeanor always encouraged me to go further. This particularly helped me when I was taking AIESEC to Pakistan. I must mention here that due to my involvement with AIESEC, I was very privileged to have the personal support of Dr. James Shuart, who was then president of Hofstra. He received me several times in his office, and this encouraged me greatly.

When you do travel with Virgin Galactic, how long will the flight be?
The flight will be around two and a half hours! If that sounds “not long enough,” let me tell you, on May 5, 1961, Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. was the first American in space, and his was also a suborbital flight, and it lasted a mere 15 minutes! A suborbital flight means breaking the orbit [100 km or 62 miles above Earth] floating in zero-G and returning to Earth. Virgin has worked very hard to make our vehicle comfy, high-tech and with windows all around, even on the floors, to give us a view of 1,000 miles in each direction. The flight will give us a comfy 5 to 7 minutes of floating in zero gravity.

When is the flight scheduled to take place?
We are the first private space liner to have a tested, proven prototype to take us into space. Being far ahead of the competition and being in the testing phase, we are getting closer to the actual flights. While the latest update from Sir Richard Branson estimates our flights to commence in 2012, it is hard to provide an actual date for something that’s never been done before. Safety is our foremost concern. So we are not in a race, and we will only commence after hundreds of test flights and after the clearance of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

How would you describe your art?
My typical art objects represent deep space themes or humanitarian causes. They express sentiments of world leaders or sing in my voice. With regard to the space expedition, I would like to do two things: First, I would like to carry my universal peace flag “Peace- Making with Nation-Souls,” which I first unveiled in the form of an exhibition at the U.N. General Assembly in May 2002. It was also then that I presented my unique, large, jewelled art objects with built-in voice and music boxes. Some of the objects contain a song and message in my voice, composed around a fusion of Eastern and Western musical instruments. The rest of the pieces contain historic messages in the voices of world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, etc.

What are your expectations for the trip?
My expectations go beyond my personal spaceflight. I would like to see private space tourism fulfill the dreams of the common man and, in the not-too-distant future, provide every man, woman and child with the opportunity to touch the stars.


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