Space, the final frontier, is on the advent of commercialization. The age of space exploration a.k.a. the New Space Age is now opening up this unlimited expanse to anyone who has ever dreamt of going there.
I joined Virgin Galactic as a founder astronaut in 2006. In March of that year, Sir Richard Branson, the chairman of the Virgin Group, introduced me to the world press as one of the earliest founders and a future astronaut of Virgin Galactic. I qualified to go to space after completing my suborbital spaceflight training at the world’s largest centrifuge in the United States in October 2007. Since then I have been working to promote space as a driver of peace.
The final frontier has gained significance as a potential platform for peace and sustainable development on Earth, ever since the establishment of the International Space Station (ISS), which has been in orbit since 1998. Governed by 15 nations, the ISS has been serving as a laboratory to conduct microgravity scientific experiments in space conditions, besides testing space systems required for missions to the moon and Mars.
Of late, however, we’re also witnessing a wave of commercialization of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Very soon, there will be private space stations in LEO with their bases in the cis-lunar orbit. This will give a boost to space tourism, opening up the wide expanse beyond the limits of our planet to everyone—and not an elite few.
Humankind’s return to the moon is also set to receive a boost with the newly announced Artemis program of the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The agency plans to set up a base on the moon by 2024 with a coalition of nations, from where it will send multiple missions carrying not only more male astronauts but also the first female astronaut. NASA also plans to send a human mission to Mars by roughly 2030, and then move onwards from there to other worlds in the solar system.
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Regional developments in the space sector in South Asia have also been remarkable.. For instance, India was the first Asian nation to successfully launch a mission to Mars. The Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan, is a space probe that has been orbiting the red planet since September 2014. China’s ambitious Chang’e Exploration Program has already sent four robotic missions to the moon. The Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 spacecraft reached the orbit of the moon in 2007 and 2010, respectively, and the Chang’e 3 lander-rover duo touched down on the moon in late 2013. With this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, China’s Chang’e 4 touched the far side of the moon. In the next phase, China’s missions aim to set up a polar research outpost on the moon before 2030.
Government programs and space agencies today understand the importance of public-private partnerships. NASA not only partnered with the private space industry by hiring commercial contractors, but also encouraged private enterprise and helped launch the privatization of space after it retired its space shuttle program in 2011. China has also been encouraging private investment in the space industry since 2014. This has resulted in a private Chinese company successfully launching a rocket into space in July of this year. Companies like SpaceX and Boeing are now on the verge of commencing commercial space flights for the United States space agency. SpaceX is also spearheading efforts to build the first colony on Mars.
To that end, Pakistan needs new minds and fresh ideas to excel in the new age of space exploration. There are multiple applications of space technologies—many related directly to some of the major public policy challenges in the country. For instance, natural disasters can be mitigated with the help of advanced space technologies. Additionally, space science and space technology applications exploiting data from satellite remote sensing (SRS) and geographic information systems (GIS) are able to play an increasingly important role in varied activities such as land use mapping, communications, resource surveying, environmental management, global positioning, navigation, meteorology and disaster monitoring. Pakistan is already endeavoring to promote such uses at an operational level. To cite one example, space-based technology is being used to search for alternate sources of water in Tharparkar.
Private engineering and technology related companies in Pakistan can also be encouraged to learn from current developments in the global space industry. The country must invest in international representation at top industry events and invite space industry experts to Pakistan to hold brainstorming and orientation sessions with the youth.
Today, there’s an emphasis on STEM education to prepare the youth for space and science related careers. However, we need to expand our horizons, and add the ‘A’ in STEM for the arts, making it STEAM. This approach takes the core STEM subjects and integrates them through the arts, acknowledging that creativity and ingenuity are the core to solving problems. We also need to provide opportunities to young women and minorities. Gender equality in the space industry is an area the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is very much involved in promoting — particularly in developing countries.
In spacefaring nations, women have been on the forefront from the very beginning. The Russians sent Yuri Gagarin, the first human to outer space, who achieved the historic feat of completing an orbit around the Earth on April 12, 1961. Then in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first and youngest women to have gone on a solo mission to space (the record stands to this day), who spent almost three days in space and orbited our planet 48 times. Svetlana Savitskaya, a Russian cosmonaut, became the first woman to perform a spacewalk in 1982. To date, NASA has sent women astronauts from various sectors to space, including Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space. Moreover, Eileen Collins became the first commander of a space shuttle, and Peggy Whitson, the first female commander at the ISS.
As a little girl, I was so fascinated by the night sky that I vowed to one day touch the deepest depth of the ocean and reach the highest of celestial heights. My father first introduced me to the Pole Star and the three constellations of the Northern Sky, namely the Little Dipper, Big Dipper and Casseopia. After that I started attending star-gazing sessions regularly to learn how to navigate my way through the stars. From that point on, for me it has been onwards and upwards. I have come a long way from working in the global space industry to also promoting space as the new frontier for peace and tourism via my non-profit, Space Trust.
Space Trust is infused with all my passions: to promote peace as a space diplomat, to engage audiences at all levels via interactive exhibits and fully immersive space environments, and to advocate for peacemaking through space. Our next big initiative to engage world leaders and governments will be our maiden expedition called 0G Peace Mission 2020. The challenge is that many leaders perceive space as a technical and alien subject that they are not experts on. Therefore, it will take time for them to understand that space can actually help craft a new form of diplomacy on Earth and for that, they don’t need to be rocket scientists.
In the meantime, I will continue to encourage nations and all sectors to look at new stars and be inspired by the majesty of the night sky.
Namira Salim is one of the founders of Virgin Galactic, the first private spaceline of the world. She is also the founder and Executive Chairperson of Space Trust, which is an active member and partner of the International Astronautical Federation. Salim is a patron of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation of the United States. She is also the first Pakistani to have travelled to the North and South Poles.