Virgin Galactic ‘founder astronaut’ Namira Salim will cheer on Sir Richard Branson as he makes his maiden space voyage on Sunday, as she prepares for her own trip.
Salim was one of the first people to buy a ticket to go to space with the firm and has been waiting 15 years for the chance to go up, saying it will be a ‘dream come true’.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1975, as a small child she knew that one day she would leave the Earth, declaring to her cousins and friends she would ‘be an astronaut’.
No stranger to adventure, Salim was the first Pakistani to reach the North Pole, the South Pole and the first Asian to complete a tandem skydive from Mount Everest.
She hopes to be the first Pakistani in space, and was named the ‘First Pakistani Astronaut’ in 2006 after purchasing her ticket with Virgin Galactic.
This is a title she cherishes, as it makes her an ‘instant source of inspiration for women and youth internationally,’ in fact she told MailOnline she hopes to take her peace flag with her to space when she launches in the new year.
She will be at Spaceport America on Sunday along with more than a dozen other Founder Astronauts to watch Sir Richard Branson launch into space.
Namira Salim with Sir Richard Branson and a model of the spaceflight system. She will cheer on Branson as he makes his maiden space voyage on Sunday, as she prepares for her own trip
Namira Salim in front of the VMS Eve mothership that will take her to space. Salim was one of the first people to buy a ticket to go to space with the firm and has been waiting 15 years for the chance to go up, saying it will be a ‘dream come true’
TIMELINE: VSS UNITY UPCOMING LAUNCHES
July 11, 2021: Sir Richard Branson travels to the edge of space in the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
It will fly to a height of 55 miles (89km) and then glide back down to Earth.
He will be joined by three mission specialists testing the customer experience.
Summer 2021: A second test flight is due to take place with a full load to test the passenger cabin.
It is set to include the pilots plus four as yet unnamed Virgin Galactic employees.
Late 2021: First revenue generation flight with the Italian Air Force to test passenger and payload.
This flight will take both astronauts and scientific equipment to the edge of space on VSS Unity.
Early 2022: The start of full commercial flights from Spaceport America.
The dozens of Future Astronauts, who paid to fly to the edge of space, will begin earning their astronaut wings.
When the news broke that Branson had founded Virgin Galactic, Salim got in touch to ask about buying a ticket before tickets were even available.
She finally saw a way to make her life long dream a reality, a dream she kept alive while at university in the US through artworks inspired by the nightsky.
In October 2007, Salim proved herself ready for the short rocket trip into space after completing her suborbital training at the world’s largest centrifuge in the US.
Holding a Masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, Salim is Founder and Executive Chairperson of Space Trust, a non-profit initiative that promotes Space as the New Frontier for Peace.
In fact, peace appears to be a central tenant in her desire to see the stars. In an interview with MailOnline she said space is the future frontier of peace.
‘It is really about being able to promote a message of global world community, because I see that I do believe that space is a new frontier for peace on Earth.
‘And I hope that I can personally, you know, promote this message in my life because this is what I what I do to my nonprofit, and that’s my work.’
Astronauts who have seen the Earth from space often talk of seeing the world as one, rather than as multiple nations divided.
Salim released a single in 2019 called ‘Follow me to the moon,’ featuring footage of space journeys and to promote her goal of space for peace, as well as the commercial space age.
She hopes that after her flight next year she’ll be able to re-release the music video with footage filmed during her own trip to the very edge of space.
A photo shows the release of VSS Unity from VMS Eve and ignition of rocket motor over Spaceport America, New Mexico
Virgin Galactic´s Richard Branson is set to beat Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos being the first to blast off into space on their July 11 flight. Branson is pictured in 2019
‘I’m the first person in the space tourism industry to have composed a song about space,’ she said in an interview with MailOnline, adding that it was about ‘educating people about the new space age.’
‘I mean, it’s a tribute to the Apollo landing in the first words, and then the new spaces, and then how space becomes the new frontier.’
She has been working with NASA through her not for profit organisation to promote space tourism, and hopes one day to be able to take an orbital trip with SpaceX.
‘I’m looking forward to that. And I would love to talk about it with him,’ she said.
It isn’t clear when Salim will travel to space with Virgin Galactic, although after 15 years of waiting it looks like the big day will be coming within the next 18 months.
She became the first Pakistani and first woman from Monaco at the North Pole in April 2007 and the South Pole in January 2008
At all three poles, she hoisted a universal peace flag, which she also hopes to take with her to space
WHO IS NAMIRA SALIM?
Namira Salim, is a Space Diplomat, Future Astronaut, Pioneering Polar Explorer and Artist.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, she is a prominent Pakistani based in the Principality of Monaco since 1997.
She will be the first South Asian to go to space aboard Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – the first private space-line of the world.
As a child, Namira Salim announced confidently to her cousins and friends that she would grow up to become an Astronaut.
Throughout college and university years in the US, she kept the dream alive by creating art inspired by the nightsky and navigating the skies during star gazing evenings.
She was one of the first to contact Virgin Galactic in 2005, when news broke about space tourism.
Salim holds a Masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University.
In November 2015, she launched her non-profit organization, Space Trust to promote Space as the New Frontier for Peace
This work, with outreach through NASA, Roscosmos and others, has carved her into a Space Diplomat who engages Heads of State and Heads of Government to utilise space as a sustainable tool for peacemaking on Earth, in support of Space2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Agenda of 2030, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
She became the first Pakistani and first woman from Monaco at the North Pole in April 2007 and the South Pole in January 2008, as well as the first Asian to skydive (tandem) over Mount Everest (third pole) in October 2008.
At all three poles, she hoisted a universal peace flag, which she also hopes to take with her to space.
In March 2006, Branson personally introduced her to the world press as one of the earliest Founders and Future Astronauts of Virgin Galactic.
Despite the long wait, she had nothing but praise for Virgin Galactic, describing their customer service as ‘exceptional,’ with a real bond forming between the founders.
These ‘founder astronauts’ were the first to purchase their tickets, before a wider group of about 600 were invited to get on board.
With six seats in the cabin, or less if there is also a scientific payload going up into space, the founders have been discussing ‘who they want to fly with,’ said Salim.
They have also had to discuss the ‘kind of flight we want with our friends,’ and the impact different body weights might have on the mid-air launch.
Unlike other space launches, Virgin Galactic sends its space plane to 50,000ft from a mothership, known as VMS Eve after Branson’s mother.
Once it reaches 50,000 feet the carrier plane releases VSS Unity, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.
Once released Unity’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic, triggering a flight at three and a half times the speed of sound.
This sends the plane, pilots and passengers into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft above the Earth’s surface and creating a new set of astronauts.
Since Soviet Union cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first person in space on April 12, 1961, a total of 553 people have left the Earth.
Each of the Virgin Galactic travellers, including Salim when her time comes, will be given astronaut wings on their return – as they pass the 50 mile ‘space’ mark.
With 600 ‘future astronauts’ waiting to fly, Virgin could surpass the current number of space travellers within a year or two.
When the astronauts go up they will be in a custom-fitted Under Armour flight suit, that includes space for a personal ‘motto’ and possession.
‘I’m going to promote peace in the world to space,’ said Salim, adding that ‘I’m sure I’ll take my peace flag and then take my song Follow me to the moon.’
Chief Astronaut Beth Moses tested the Virgin Galactic cabin in the first flight last year with someone other than the pilots on board, she will join Sir Richard for his flight on Sunday
Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) touches down after flying freely for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) on 3rd, December 2016 in the Mojave Desert
During her polar expeditions and the Everest skydive she flew the peace flag, something she hopes to do once in space.
Salim, an expert in international affairs, says we are about to enter a major new era of both space tourism and commercial space flight.
Aside from the Virgin Galactic efforts, Jeff Bezos will be flying customers to the edge of space in the Blue Origin New Shepherd rocket, and Elon Musk will be sending a civilian crew to orbit the Earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
She said the world is changing quickly. The first commercial visits to the ISS had to be organised through the Russian space agency Roscosmos as NASA wouldn’t allow it, however that is starting to change.
A lot of the success of the commercial space tourism sector will come down to customer service, especially initially where it will be an expensive experience.
Each of the future astronauts have been fitted for their space suit (pictured here with Ms Salim)
Richard Branson will travel to space on VSS Unity on Sunday July 11, with a live stream of the event starting at 14:00 BST (09:00 ET) from Spaceport America in New Mexico
THE CURRENT VIRGIN GALACTIC FLEET
VMS Eve: The launch platform for the SpaceShipTwo and Spaceship III based Virgin Galactic vehicles.
VMS stands for Virgin MotherShip and is named after Evette Branson, mother of founder Sir Richard Branson.
So far only one has been built and it made its first flight in December 2008.
VSS Unity: Based on the SpaceShip Two class of vehicle, it is a rocket powered glider.
A replacement for the destroyed VSS Enterprise, Unity first flew to space in December 2018.
It has reached an altitude of 50 miles, earning its pilots commercial astronaut wings for the first time in 2018.
VSS Imagine: The first Spaceship III class of spaceplane, due to begin glide tests summer 2021.
VSS Inspire: The second Spaceship III class of spaceplane currently under construction in California by the Spaceship Company.
‘Because, you know, customer experience at Virgin is out of the world,’ said Salim.’ I mean, I’ve been with them for so long. And all our events are so beautifully planned.
‘It’s just amazing. really perfect. No doubt about it. And that’s part of what will make this a success,’ she explained.
Sir Richard Branson’s flight on July 11 won’t just be a jolly, his job will be to evaluate, first hand, the customer experience and report back any changes required.
That includes the experience before getting in the space plane, the rocket firing, the weightlessness – including the seat, the windows and cabin – then the glide home.
‘We didn’t know what to expect,’ said Salim, who said she supports every one of the companies pushing forward into the space tourism industry.
‘I mean, I support everyone who’s making efforts to make space tourism a reality for everyone on Earth. I mean, I give equal credit to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, because it’s all a joint effort at the end of the day.’
From that childhood dream of going to space, to making art and music about the stars, Salim said keeping her ‘childlike spirit’ is what kept her going.
Asked what she would say to a young girl dreaming of space like she did, Salim said ‘whether they want to go to space, or do whatever it is important to have a dream.’
‘If I could dream as a child in Pakistan, going to space and it happened, why wouldn’t I advise anyone in today’s day and age to dream and expect it to become reality?’
When she goes to space Ms Salim says it will be a ‘dream come true’ and one she has held since childhood when she told friends and cousins she would be an astronaut one day
The crew will test all aspects of the astronaut experience, including the view of the Earth from the windows, as seen here during a flight in December 2018
‘Go for your dreams, because no matter what you do, as long as you believe it can happen, it can.
‘I think that back then, when I was still living like a child, and I said I would go to space people said it didn’t make any sense, but you know, what got me up to here is that I had a childlike enthusiasm and like a purity of intent in my dream.’
‘I think, at the end of the day, you know, when we believe strongly in something, and when we are positive about something, it really happens.’
Asked if she had a message for Branson, Salim said: ‘I wish you all the very best in skyrocketing as the first private spaceline in the world. Richard you have delivered your promise and you are our ace of space.’
HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?
Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.
Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.
WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).
The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.
Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home
Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.
Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.
Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.
The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.
WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)
This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.
After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.
The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.
As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.
At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing.
Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future