Klang lass picked for NASA space programme

Written by: GK | 05 Jan 2021 10:56
Vanmitha Athimoolam with Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor in an earlier photo
Written by:
05 Jan 2021 10:56

AEROSPACE engineering student Vanmitha Athimoolam, 20, has been picked as a finalist, and the only Malaysian in a competition run by the US company Advancing X.

This may see Vanmitha, who is from Klang picked for a five-year programme to be chosen from a Career Astronaut competition for a suborbital flight, making her the second Malaysian to go into space.

She is just one interview away. If accepted, she must move to the US in July for five years of intensive training to test her physical and mental strength.

Vanmitha's interest in space was piqued when she watched space adventure film, Zaruthra, in 2005.

“Zaruthra was the first space movie I’d ever seen, and when I saw what space looked like in the movie it fascinated me. From then on I had this curiosity about life beyond earth,” she told FMT.

She recalls first telling her parents she wanted to be an astronaut all those years ago. They chalked it up as being a “phase”, one that many children go through before they realise the difficulty involved.

“Little did they know how focused I would be,” she said. “They told me I would need to study hard if I wanted this, and that’s when I really began to take education seriously because I needed to if I wanted to get where I wanted to go.”

Coming from a middle-class family in a country without much history of sending people to space, aside from Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor in 2007, Vanmitha was unsure of whether it was even possible for her to make it to space. She had plenty of detractors too.

“When I was young, people told me I had no future in Malaysia. ‘Forget about your dream, do something ordinary like medicine or law, or become a teacher’.

“People gave me the mindset that there was no future for me here, that I had to go overseas.”

She described falling into a depression after finding out NASA only accepted US citizens in 2017, a period where she briefly considered giving up on being an astronaut.

“But then I found out about a local space NGO, and I went to their annual general meeting at the planetarium. I met a bunch of people with the same mindset as me, working towards building a strong space industry in Malaysia. That gave me my hope back.”

And while she has experienced plenty of turbulence since then, dealing with “lots of failure and rejection from competitions and programmes,” she now takes each setback as a learning experience, moving forward with the support of her family.

As a young woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields), she hopes that other Malaysian girls can follow in her footsteps, so that their gender need not be an additional obstacle to reaching their goals.

“I’m sorry to say, but gender equality is not where it needs to be in Malaysia, there’s still a feeling that men are superior. Some people don’t think women can achieve what a man can.

“For me, and other women in STEM in Malaysia, it’s time to recognise us and empower us to dream big.”

Reflecting on all the people who told her being an astronaut was out of her reach, she said that “it’s the people who don’t achieve their dreams who try to stop you from getting to yours,” and offered advice to others with lofty aspirations.

“When people say you have no future, you have to believe that the future must be created by you. It’s in your hands. Focus on yourself and your dream, and don’t give up easily.

“You only fail when you stop trying.”

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