Next Launch:

One Woman's Fight for Space Exploration in Pakistan

Alex Lin
Jake Rinn
June 29, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

In Kashmir, a decades-old border dispute reignites with new fervor.

There in the fertile valley bordering the Himalayas lies a hotbed of ongoing Indo-Pakistani conflict. A fragile ceasefire signed in 2003 disintegrated in November after both countries initiated a series of shellings, killing villagers on both sides of the Line of Control. Border claims and territorial conflict have plagued the region since the mid-20th century—a cause for international concern when the nations in question are both nuclear powers.

In Pakistan's industrial hub of Punjab, another battle is underway: a young woman's fight to bring space & science education to her country's youth. Yumna Majeed is a medical lab technologist and space educator who serves as an ambassador for the Space Generation Advisory Council in Pakistan. She’s also the founder of , an initiative that seeks to inspire the next generation of Pakistani astronomers, scientists, and—hopefully—astronauts.

Since 2016, Majeed has promoted the advancement of space technology, research, and accessibility in a nation she describes as still placing “more importance in astrology than astronomy.” In the span of five years, Majeed has managed to connect space-farer hopefuls to NASA systems engineers, Russian and Romanian cosmonauts, and other space education foundations.

For her humanitarian efforts, Majeed was the recipient of the , an honor given to those in the name of the late Princess Diana for developing positive social change for young people around the world.

In the middle of a pandemic, Majeed’s work has been difficult, but it's what she's used to. A visit from an astronaut or chat with an astronomer would be a nice perk to many US classrooms. But to the students of Pakistan, such early and consistent exposure to space icons and their research is simply unheard of. Pakistan’s still-nascent space presence means that Majeed had — and still has — little to work with when establishing Exploration by Yumna. She’s built much of her initiative straight from the ground up.

“We hardly have universities which are actually teaching this subject.

We do not have a BS in Astronomy,” says Majeed, “We do have a space sciences BS. We have science degrees, but that’s not something a lot of people look into.”

The scarcity of advanced science degrees available in Pakistan is compounded by barriers to primary education. According to , nearly 22.5 million children are not in school. This figure is disproportionately weighted toward girls, with only 41% remaining in school by sixth grade. By ninth grade, that number drops down to only 13%. Social and economic unrest presents an obstacle for domestic attempts to support girls’ early education.

Activist Malala Yousafzai’s story is an example of what might happen to a young woman pursuing education in Pakistan. When Yousafzai was just a pre-teen, she wrote a blog under a pen name for BBC Urdu describing her life growing up in the Swat district of Pakistan, which had been occupied by the Tehrik-i-Taliban. As Yousafzai rose to international prominence, so did the target on her back. In 2012, after taking an exam, Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Tehrik-i-Taliban gunman in retaliation for her activism.

Although Yousafzai survived, young girls in Pakistan pursuing education continue to face similar threats of violence.

Efforts to ramp up Pakistan’s space program have their own set of challenges. The Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was formed in 1961, and that same year, Pakistan’s top scientists trained at NASA’s Goddard Space Center. There, Pakistani rocket scientist Salim Mehmud played a key role in developing Nike-Cajun, a two-stage solid fuel-based sounding rocket that was the most used sounding rocket in the west until 1976.

In spite of a strong start, it took until —its first communications satellite. Just a month before, Pakistan’s National Command Authority laid the groundwork for Space Program 2040—a hearty attempt at catching up with neighbor India’s space aspirations.

But how can a nation make advances in space research with such entrenched barriers to education? Moreover, even if students do choose to pursue education in space research, their degree hardly opens up as many career doors in Pakistan as it might in the US.

“[Astronomy] doesn't bring food to people.”

“We don't have many jobs over here,” Majeed says. In Pakistan, a Ph.D. is necessary—not optional—for a legitimate career in astronomy. Otherwise, there are simply not a lot of roles that a scientist with only a bachelor's or even a master's in space science could fill. As a result, those who do end up pursuing one or two degrees studying astronomy end up seeking opportunities elsewhere—namely in foreign space agencies like NASA or ESA. This only aggravates the roadblocks inhibiting space science advancement in Pakistan.

For many students in Pakistan, a career in science is not only unpractical. It’s hard to imagine.

“Not only are there a lack of jobs but there’s also a lack of public accessibility. When it comes to astronomy, we don't have access to the equipment. Pakistan doesn’t have even a single telescope manufacturing company,” says Majeed, whose space advocacy all began after she won her own telescope in a competition. “Even if somebody's trying to access equipment, we have foolish rules which makes it more difficult for a person to get that equipment. We do not have public observatories, we do not have public planetariums. We do not have space museums, science museums. We do not have such things."

There are dozens of AAM and ASTC accredited space, science, and aviation museums in the United States, so a world without that allure of space exploration might be hard for us to imagine. alone, and admission to the nation’s hallmark museum in Washington, D.C. is completely free. That open accessibility is certainly aided by the fact that the institute’s federal funding for that fiscal year totaled a whopping $1 billion. Comparatively, SUPARCO holds a 2020-2021 budget of 4,975 million Pakistani rupees, roughly the equivalent of 31 million USD. That’s barely over 0.1% of the 2021 fiscal year budget that Congress approved for NASA in December 2020, which clocks in at just under 23.3 billion.

Given the breakdown of the country’s 2020-21 federal budget, it’s clear that Pakistani politicians have other challenges to face aside from an immature space program. (that’s 95 billion US dollars) is allocated for national defense — a figure that’s likely in response to oscillating tensions at the border in Kashmir. With the looming threat of all-out war almost constantly on the horizon, other scientific endeavors simply must take a backseat to developing stronger, faster, and better defense systems.

As a result, when Yumna Majeed’s educational project first started picking up speed, many teachers, parents, and students did not understand the initiative.

“I never planned to be a space educator, and it is a beautiful accident. I came up with this term for myself, because people in different interviews, started calling me self-proclaimed astronaut, or astronomer, and things like that,” says Majeed, who now helps connect Pakistani students with real-life astronauts, “And I wanted a proper term to represent myself. I am not a self-proclaimed astronaut. I am not an astronomer. I am not interested in spectroscopy or measuring the temperature or colors of stars. I am interested in space travel. I am interested in how things work in zero gravity. I'm interested in how science experiments are being conducted at the International Space Station. So this is a difference that people over here in Pakistan, they do not understand.”

Even though she’s not an astronaut, Majeed works to encourage Pakistani children to at least have a curiosity for space exploration — if not become the next space explorers themselves.

“I am actually seeing the responses from kids, and realizing there are people who look up to me, and I feel more responsibility because this is not my final destination. This being a space educator — it happened accidentally. There was a young person who messaged me on Instagram today, and her message said ‘You gave me hope. I had already given up on my astronomy dream, but your interview gave me hope. And I will also teach kids about astronomy.’ I was like — No girl, don’t stop there. If you are passionate about something, please go for it. I didn't want to convey a message that I became a space educator, so you all should become one. No, I want them to be more than that. I want them to be more successful. Like they say, shoot for the Moon. And even if you fail, you will land among the stars.”

Majeed has been featured on leading Pakistani news syndicates such as Express News, Geo Pakistan, and 24 News HD. Majeed also recently received the gift of a lifetime: meteorite samples.

“I work in collaboration with various US and European-based organizations. Their objective is similar to mine — they want to promote space science in their communities, in their countries, and all over the world. So, one of the companies is based in the US, and the person who owns the organization is a meteorite collector himself. As I was running his chapter in my country, he gave me a set of meteorites for educational purposes,” says Majeed, “One of them was a meteorite that fell in my own country.”

How did a meteorite that was found in Pakistan end up overseas? For Majeed, the story is a disappointing status quo. “The meteorite fell in Pakistan, but we did not have access to it. It went to America, some meteorite hunters sold it, and that’s how my friend got a little piece of it,” Majeed says, “Right now, I own them, but I also want to use them for public observation, because we don't have museums here.”

It’s a major step that Majeed is now in possession of these rocks. However, sharing them with the rest of Pakistan has proved challenging. “Any type of rocks and telescopes are somehow banned at our customs… I want kids to come and see [them]. But for that, I need a proper setup,” says Majeed, “I need to make a tiny traveling museum… But I’m struggling for sponsorship. That’s a difficult thing."

Whether she’s waxing poetic about possibilities ahead in space travel or connecting seasoned astronauts with wide-eyed students, Majeed’s message for Pakistan’s young space enthusiasts is constant: just go for it.

“I want kids to go for it, to go for NASA, to go for SpaceX, rather than teaching. If younger people are looking up to me — they want to be Yumna Majeed — I do not want this vicious cycle. I want them to be more than me. I don't want 100 girls to grow up and to get to whatever degree their parents say. And then for fun, do this space education thing.”

“I want to tell them to think big."

"If they want to go for space, they have to remove the boundaries”

Yumna Majeed is the founder of Exploration by Yumna and a space exploration and education advocate based in Pakistan. You can follow her at @explorationbyyumna on Instagram for updates on her programs available for Pakistani students. 

Alex Lin
Jake Rinn
June 29, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)