Beyond the blue skies

courtesy DAWN News

Beyond the blue skiesSyed Asifuddin, like thousands of others fascinated by the dark space beyond blue skies, dreamt of becoming an astronaut or a space scientist. Where most of the dreamers abandon such ambitions as soon as they step into the working life, Asifuddin wasn’t ready to shed his vision just yet – and for good reason.

Asifuddin, an O-Levels teacher in Karachi, was invited by NASA to a five-day space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, USA.

He joined the Marshal Space Flight Center, with his travel and accommodation fully funded by Honeywell Hometown Solutions. About 220 teachers from 21 countries and 47 states took part in 2010 space camp. Asifuddin was the only Pakistani to join the camp. To represent his national pride and patriotism, he put a Pakistan flag badge instead of his name badge on his original rich blue space suit.

Asifuddin had filled an e-form for the space camp back in December 2009 and received a formal invitation from NASA in March 2010. He trained at the Marshal Space Center from June 12 until June 16.

He did the NASA engineering design challenge, walked underwater to feel zero gravity, docked a cargo ship at the International Space Station (ISS) virtually, worked on a space shuttle as a mission scientist and felt micro gravity as astronaut.

Apart from the training, NASA’s top scientists and engineers also gave lectures and presentations to the participants. Eminent scientist and astronaut Ed Buckbee also shared the joy of challenges, discoveries and successes of space missions.

Asifuddin said that many asked why teachers were invited to the NASA space camps and not students. The answer was simple; a teacher is a great motivator. He can spark a thirst of knowledge and enthusiasm among students. That is why hundreds of teachers are invited every year to join space camps so they can push the joy of science and exploration in the hearts of thousands of students.

However, Asifuddin was dismayed that there are no space camps in Pakistan. He claimed that Suparco, PIA and other institutes were doing nothing to promote space sciences among students.

Despite of dozens of TV channels Pakistan has no science programmes for children, lacks science museums and science books in Urdu and other regional languages such as Balochi, Sindhi and Pashto. Neither does it have an FM radio station dedicated to knowledge, education or science. Popular science magazines in Pakistan face serious survival problems as well.

The PIA planetarium in Karachi could be a good place for space camps or summer science camps. But amazingly the planetarium is still running the same astronomical programme since the 20 years!

Asifuddin said that there were many Indian participants (majority of who were women) in the space camp and it was sad to see no Pakistanis there. He blamed the absence of his compatriots on the lack of awareness. But since he has managed to achieve his dream, or at least get half way there, he pledges to promote science and technology among Pakistani youth and is keen to help those interested in joining the NASA space camp next year.

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