Namira Salim likes to be first. By early 2008, the Pakistani artist and diplomat had already collected two firsts when she traveled to the North and South poles, becoming the first person from her country to do so, as well as the first woman from Monaco, where she now resides, to accomplish the feat.
That fall, she topped it when she became the first Asian to skydive over Mount Everest. The Earthly accomplishments were fine, sure, but for Salim, whose dreams have turned skyward since birth, they just filled the gap while she waited to obtain the “first” she’s been after all along.
“I’ve been inspired to do more,” she told the Orlando Sentinel while on a trip to Cocoa Beach for the Apollo 11 moon landing 50th anniversary. “So first of all, I think I should go as far as possible on Earth before I break the orbit.”
That’s right — the “first” that Salim is seeking won’t take place on our planet at all, not really. She wants to become the first Pakistani to fly to space. And with her $200,000 ticket on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights, she’s well on her way.
Salim, 44, became one of the founding members of billionaire Richard Branson’s space tourism company back near its inception in 2006. She was one of tens of thousands of people who applied to go on the flights to the edge of space and spent about a year in negotiations to ensure she was selected — so she could snag her “first.”
But don’t get her wrong, Salim isn’t your typical starry-eyed entrepreneur with deep pockets.
After getting a bachelors degree in international business from Hofstra University and a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University, Salim returned to Pakistan to become the founding president of the nation’s first International Association of Students in Economics and Business Management, a cultural exchange program that works with the United Nations.
Her sculptural art pieces focus on the theme of peace, while her upcoming jewelry line is based on the constellations.
And, in the 13 years that have passed since she made her deposit with Virgin, she’s continued to promote space tourism and privatization of space. Her non-profit, Space Trust, was launched in 2015 to promote peace through space travel and it set up the 0G Summit to encourage international cooperation in space. It’s pushing to set up the first peace summit in orbit by 2030.
And soon, Salim may finally be heading to the cosmos. Virgin sent its first passengers — members of its staff — to space this year on test flights aboard its SpaceShipTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
The Sentinel sat down with Salim during her stay on the Space Coast to talk about her dreams of space, the changes she’s witnessed in space tourism and the future of diversity in space. (The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tell us about your background — how was it growing up in Pakistan and when did your interest in space begin?
My father was in the army and it was my father who first introduced me to the stars. But even before that, I always said that I was born with the dream of going to space. It makes my DNA. When I was little, I used to cry and I told my parents said, “I don’t want to play with toys, send me to space.”
So when I was a teenager, my father showed me the pole star. And he showed me all the northern constellations. I would just spend my evenings during my high school and my secondary school days stargazing on the rooftop of my house in Dubai.
I would tell cousins and friends that I would grow up to become an astronaut. And honestly, I had no idea how I was going to do it. I used to be so inspired that the first two initials of my first name and last name, like n-a and s-a, is like NASA. And that was my closest association to NASA.
I used to think, ‘I’m so privileged. My name is like NASA, you know, I’m going to go to space one day.’
So it was meant to be for you.
Yeah. Then, you know, it just happens when it’s meant to be. And when you believe in it so strongly.
So I was in Monaco doing some work on my computer and I came across the news that Virgin and Richard [Branson] were going to launch the first private spaceflight [company]. And I just picked up the phone and I called our commercial director and I told him, I said, ‘Listen, I want to join, but you know, I want to be the first one from Pakistan, first from Monaco.’ There were 44,000 applicants.
And you know, I mean, there was a selection process. I joined in January 2006. And in March 2006, Richard came to Dubai to launch Virgin Galactic and since I was the first customer from the [United Arab Emirates], he actually invited me and he launched Virgin Galactic with me. And then the government of Pakistan invited me and can you imagine a little girl growing up in Pakistan, thinking of going to space, was launched by the country on the national level as the “First Pakistani Astronaut.”
That is a bit too much. I mean, dreams do come true, I guess. This is like really impossible stuff. We have a country of 200 million people and to have this title — it means a lot.
Spaceflight often takes a really long time. It’s been over a decade since you signed up with Virgin. How have you seen space tourism evolve in that time?
Now we have Blue Origin that’s really caught up. And there were times when people thought that maybe Blue Origin will be the first. But there’s no race here. Everybody’s focused on the safety of operations and nobody wants to be the first as such. Virgin is still, however, the first. They’re ahead of the game and they have done two human spaceflights recently to space.
We in this suborbital spaceflight community are very supportive of each other. I don’t think that I’ve seen any, in my experience, cutthroat competition. It’s about achieving a milestone. It’s about that giant leap for the consumer market into into space. So whoever does it, we have to support them, because it’s going to help anyone who’s dreamt of going to space in the future. It’s not just about my spaceflight, it’s about what I’m doing to create this opportunity for the masses.
What do you think about the opportunities there are now for women in this field? What do you think we should be doing to be able to include not just women, but other ethnicities, too, and more diversity in aerospace?
Returning the next man to the moon and the first woman to the moon [under NASA’s Artemis program] is an amazing thing. It’s really inspirational to see that happen.
But my message is that, now that they’re engaging international partners and other countries, they need to provide opportunities for other nationalities, women from other countries, especially developing countries, who don’t have their own space programs, to fly to space on an orbital flight.
You’re a person who has traveled to places that a lot of people haven’t been to, and I imagine you have a connection with the Earth, as well, because of that. There’s a lot of people who say maybe we should be investing a little less on spaceflight and a little bit more on our planet. How do you reconcile those two ideas?
I think people don’t realize how important space technologies are in our daily lives. People think space is alien, it has nothing to do with us on Earth.
But look at our cell phones, look at our navigation systems in the cars, look at what’s happening at the International Space Station for medical breakthroughs, for the environment, for green house experiments, for disaster risk reduction, for disaster management.
We need all that, and yes, it’s nice to have a fun ride into space. Maybe people think that is not important. But no, it’s the very same industry that’s going to actually open low Earth orbit and the suborbital flights to students [and] to scientists to do experiments. If the suborbital flights do not happen, we would not have this gateway open for all these other sectors.
It’s not just about going there and planting a flag on the moon, or taking a joyride for the rich and famous. It’s going to be a consumer market.