On Saturday, people around the world were glued to their screens as SpaceX and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the first commercial rocket to space, with two astronauts on board.
Many in Pakistan were inspired by the new development in space science as well. For many, it has been a dream to witness a Pakistani rocket traveling to space with local astronauts.
For one Pakistani girl, however, it has been a lot more than just a dream. Yumna Majeed started eyeing galaxies when she was just a child.
As she nursed her dream to become an astronaut and aim for the moon, quite literally, Pakistan’s educational system wasn’t kind enough to encourage her aspirations for space.
Owing to her passion for space, she was mocked and bullied as a child, not only by other children but also her science teachers.
When she was in Grade 9 of a government school, Yumna was selected to be a part of the high achievers’ classroom. On the first day, the teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Unsurprisingly, most responded they wanted to be doctors or engineers.
When it was Yumna’s turn to answer, she proudly announced that she wanted to be an astronaut. This was followed by silence, only broken by the teacher laughing at her, as the rest of the students joined in.
While discussing her journey, Yumna recounts that most students didn’t even know what an astronaut was. But that wasn’t the worst; what followed is much grimmer.
After explaining to students what an astronaut is, the teacher asserted that astronauts don’t really exist and that space is nothing but a fairy tale.
“[The teacher] said that there was no such thing as space. Everything Allah has made is on the Earth, the moon landing is fake, and there’s nothing outside the atmosphere,” she recalls.
Against the odds
All of this resulted in Yumna being regularly bullied. A few months later she transferred to a different classroom. A former classmate later told her that the whole class thought she had moved because she had ‘mental health issues’.
“Just because you’re different, doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I now realize that my biggest mistake has been trying to fit in with other people,” she says.
Today, Yumna Majeed is the national point of contact in Pakistan for the Space Generation Advisory Council, and the founder of an educational enterprise ,Exploration, that aims to encourage children who dare to dream of being astronauts.
Being the point of contact, she is the national outreach coordinator for multiple space organizations, including Space Generation Advisory Council, which is an international non-profit space organization that works with NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) among others.
Another organization that Yumna works with is the Space for Art Foundation, created by Astronaut Nicole Stott, which helped her send artworks created by Pakistani children into space.
Yumna recalls that when the time had come to choose a career, she was unable to rationalize choosing her greatest passion, space science, as a career in a country where she was told there is ‘no scope for a job’ in the field. Hence, she chose her second biggest passion, and became a medical lab technology student at Allama Iqbal Medical College.
While her love of genetics, dinosaurs, and modes of inheritance led her to medicine, Yumna knew there are kids all over Pakistan who dream of going to space one day. She thought their dreams will remain just that, unless she does something about it. She decided that if Pakistan didn’t have ‘scope for space science’, she was going to create it.
In 2016, at the age of 18, Yumna Majeed started a space awareness campaign, which consisted of her going to various schools and institutions, requesting them to let her speak to their students and talk about astronomy and space science.
Her session was titled ‘Debunking Space Myths’ and she usually worked with students, teaching them about the solar system.
“The schools demanded that I only teach them things that are already in the curriculum,” Yumna recalls. She maintains that there is a lot of misinformation related to the solar system in the textbooks as well, which was one of the challenges she faced. This campaign turned into Exploration, an educational enterprise that is still active today.
“Exploration is the positive outcome of all the anger I had as a child,” says Yumna, explaining that whenever she went to a school, the administration would question her own career choice.
“They used to say, you have already chosen the medical field, and now you are trying to mislead these students”.
Yumna recounts that parents and schools didn’t encourage space education, because they perceive it as an “expensive hobby” only suited for the elite. It is usually believed that you can’t teach or learn about astronomy without a telescope, which, Yumna maintains, is “quite false”.
As she persevered, international organizations embraced Yumna. She even received a telescope autographed by NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly.
The national space agency, Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), has been working to promote indigenous space technology and development for years. However, Yumra was initially unable to contact it.
Disappointed, she looked toward other online sources to satisfy her craving for space. During one of her online astronomy conquests, she found the Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST). She got exposed to more communities, space enthusiasts, online content, as well as access to instruments like telescopes and solar glasses, etc.
SUPARCO used to be at the frontline in Asia in its heyday, conducting research, even launching rockets. Unfortunately, as the years have gone by, the national space agency has become a thing of the past.
Eventually, circumstances led to Pakistan’s last satellite, Paksat-1R, being funded, constructed, and launched by China in 2011. Today, Pakistan’s position in the space race is limited to the gesture of Chinese astronauts taking its flag into space.
While there are promises of better times, and Pakistani rockets being launched into space, for many, the situation seems gloomy without adequate awareness and education of scientists and the development of space science in Pakistan.
Talking about what can be done to improve the chances of a Pakistan where children can fulfil their dreams of becoming astronauts, Yumna explains that it is going to be a long journey.
The need of the hour is to spread awareness about the subject and demystify the myths that are ingrained in people’s minds. The next step would be the provision of education in space science in universities and schools.
As things stand, there is no way to study astronomy or space science at school or university. A few universities offer astrophysics only at the PhD level. Yumna believes that only after sufficient awareness will people demand that space science be part of formal education in Pakistan.
“It all starts by taking small steps,” says Yumna. Just like the small step taken by Neil Armstrong.