Namira Salim holds the distinction as one of the first people to buy a ticket to go to space with Virgin Galactic. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: At 6.30pm (UAE time), Sunday, July 11, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson will soar more than 80km above the New Mexico desert in US aboard his Virgin Galactic passenger rocket plane to make the first fully crewed test flight to the edge of space.

And one UAE resident, Namira Salim — the first Pakistani female astronaut or more precisely, a Virgin Galactic ‘founder astronaut’ — is there to cheer him and witness the ushering of astro-tourism. “The mood is very upbeat,” Namira told Gulf News in an exclusive interview two hours before the historic flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. “We are all very excited to finally see this happen. We have been waiting for moment for 15 years and now his spaceship will go up (with him on-board). This is a major milestone that he (Branson) promised and he is indeed delivering it,” she added.

Aboard the next space flight

Namira will not only cheer on Branson, she will also follow up every news and update of the maiden space voyage as she also prepares for her own space trip early next year.

Namira holds the distinction as one of the first people to buy a ticket to go to space with the firm and has been waiting 16 years for her own chance to reach earth’s outer space. Namira reportedly paid around Dh730,000 to be one of the first passengers aboard Virgin Galactic’s space tourist flights — and now her 16-year wait could finally be over.

In March 2006, Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, personally introduced Namira in Dubai as one of the earliest ‘Founders and Future Astronauts of Virgin Galactic’. Then in August 2006, the government of Pakistan, officially recognised her as the nation’s ‘First Astronaut’. In October 2007, she successfully qualified to go to space after completing her suborbital space flight training at the world’s largest centrifuge in the US.

First female space tourist

Namira, who has been a resident of Dubai since 1981, told Gulf News: “I’m very honoured to become the first Pakistani to potently go to space. I will be the first female astronaut and first female space tourist from the UAE and first of South Asian origin. Being an example of early consumer confidence, I think I have motivated the region and Pakistan to go ahead with their space exploration. And now, the UAE is at the forefront space travel and I’m very proud of it.”

‘Ace of space’

Talking about his role model, Namira branded Branson as the ‘Ace of Space’. “He has put his heart and soul into this project and he is doing everything to make this (space venture) the most memorable experience.”

Namira noted: “As an early founder, I have invested in the future of commercial space flight for the common man. This is not for the rich and famous and it’s not an exclusive club, rather it’s all inclusive. Today (July 11) marks the most special of‎ our milestones as we see Virgin Galactic skyrocket with Sir Richard Branson as Astronaut 001, and give birth to space tourism as the first spaceline of the world,” she added.