October issue 2006
Interview: Namira Salim
“For me, going into space is meditative”
– Namira Salim
Namira Salim, artist and soon to be space traveller, is Pakistan’s newest celebrity. Up until March 29, 2006, Namira was recognised for her unique music-art sculptures and her interest in astronomy and star-gazing. That was then. Now Namira is one of the 100 people chosen by Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and one of the world’s most adventurous entrepreneurs, to fly into space on a commercial spaceship.
As a member of the exclusive and historical Virgin Galactic Founders Club, which comprises the first 100 space travellers to sign up for a flight on Virgin Galactic when commercial operations commence in 2008/9, Namira will be the first woman from the Middle East to travel commercially into space.
The gifted Pakistani has been living a low-profile life in southern France and Dubai, while keeping herself busy working as a sculptor, musician, poet, astrologist and peace activist.
Thirty-five-year-old Namira was born and bred in Karachi, where she completed her intermediate from the Government Commerce College before heading to New York to study international business at Hofstra University, She went on to study international relations at Columbia University. Her father, Salim, hails from the Sheikhupura district of the Punjab, while her mother was brought up in Delhi, but is originally from Allahabad. She has a twin brother, who now runs their father’s business in Dubai.
Since early childhood, Namira was convinced that commercial space travel would become a reality in her lifetime, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture is poised to prove her prognostications right.
Stephen Attenborough, head of astronaut relations, introduced her as “not only a talented and accomplished artist, but someone who has long dreamt of experiencing the magic of space for herself. We are delighted to help her realise that dream and to welcome her as a Virgin Galactic Founder. We are especially pleased to be able to make this announcement in Namira’s home country of Dubai and look forward to many others from the region following in her footsteps.” Newsline talks to Pakistan’s very first female commercial space traveller.
Q: According to the proposed Virgin Galactic schedule, you are scheduled to go into space in 2008. Why and how did you join the Virgin Galactic Founders club?
A: It was my childhood dream to become an astronaut. I am a person who loves solitude, and I have always dreamt of being amongst the stars. For me, going into space is meditative. I am happiest on my own, and I was born with this passion — I have always been fascinated by the night sky, and I always fed this passion.
I got my first telescope when I was 14. Two years later, I joined an astronomy society that had just been formed — the first of its kind in the country by the name of Amastropak. I was its first female member. We organised a very big event when Mars came the closest it ever had to Earth. Also, I was lucky to have David McNaughton, one of the first people in the world to go into space, as my mentor. I met him in Dubai, and over the years, he became, and still is, my astronomy mentor and teacher.
In Dubai, we used to have sky gazing parties in the desert, and I continued my star-gazing activities in the United States in Long Island, New York. I continued to be involved in space-related events throughout college as well as university, under a private label called A Soul Affair de Monaco.
The people selected for this venture represent something unique in terms of profession and personality. We were chosen because of our distinctive backgrounds, to become goodwill ambassadors for the Virgin Galactic and to convey to the world that a common man can also go into space. It is not an elite club for a few organisations or astronauts. I don’t see why the common man should not go into space.
Q: How did you feel when a low profile person like yourself, was introduced by none other than Richard Branson to the international media, in the presence of Arab royalty?
A: It was a great evening. I had mentally prepared myself, but still, it was awesome. I was probably the second member of Virgin Galactic who was introduced by Richard Branson. Richard is a very warm and down-to-earth person.
Q: There is competition in the commercial space travel industry. Why did you choose to become a member of Virgin Galactic? What is so special about this venture?
A: There is undoubtedly a lot of competition around, but nobody has a real spaceship yet. Virgin is the only company which has its own spaceship, that has been test-flown. The world famous engineer Burt Rutan has designed the Virgin Galactic spaceship.
Q: Will you be able to survive the rigorous training for a space flight?
A: You cannot go into space if you have blood pressure and heart-related problems, and I am a healthy individual. Since there is no vertical launch involved, the venture is more commercially viable. In the upper atmosphere, we will be travelling at three times the speed of sound, and we will experience three G forces and a weightless environment. I have also been invited on a parabolic flight in the United States, in which you experience weightlessness and have to create an art object in zero gravity while floating. I am looking forward to it.
Q: Do you think frequent space travel on a commercial basis will actually become a reality? The costs of the flight seem too high, and the technological glitches also need to be overcome.
A: The initial two airplane flights from London to New York cost $80,000 but now they cost only $500. In the same way, in the near future, space travel too is going to cost only a few thousand dollars. The cost of a space flight has already come down to $50,000.
Q: Did you face any obstacles in getting to this place, or has life been kind to you?
A: Whatever I have done and succeeded in has been achieved after a lot of struggle. Things did not come as easy as you might think.
Q: You have explored many artistic avenues — sculpture, music, poetry, art — besides being a peace activist. Through which of these have you truly expressed yourself?
A: My poetry, art and sculptures all supplement each other. It is because of my art that I have earned this opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream.
My art is my invention in a sense. I design large-sized jewelled objects, like a crystal stone mounted on voice and music boxes with a motor inside. My art falls under the category of decorative art, and my pieces are made of the finest materials. I have also given a Pakistani touch to my art pieces.
I have always been inspired by European decorative art. I moved to Southern France because all the factories for such materials are located there. I have never seen anything even remotely resembling the musical art objects that I have created. They are created after a very special exercise, and have been assembled through a difficult process that took me a couple of years to master, as I don’t have a science background. This is also something that I do in France because of the availability of materials, while the US is the major market for these pieces.
Q: How much do you believe in astrology? Do you think life is pre-determined?
A: Astrology is a science as well. But there is something beyond astrology, there is a God up there.
Q: Do you have any plans to work for youth and women’s development in Pakistan?
A: I am following in the footsteps of my grandmother, I am representing her spirit and character in a way. Although her creative ideas for women’s development have not seemed to work out so far, I was very specific about what I wanted to do. However, nobody wanted to take the trouble to do it. For the youth, I intend to bring a very nice, interactive exhibition with simulators before the end of the year to Pakistan. I also want to present a faith-and astronomy-related walk-through exhibit with celestial objects and simulators.