Pakistan, STEM and NASA - Mansoor Ahmed

By Humera Ali and Minahil Gohar

With special thanks to Mansoor Ahmed

Image via Dawn

Mansoor Ahmed, a passionate physicist and advocate for STEM, retired from NASA in 2019. As the Associate Director of the Astrophysics Projects Division as well as the Program Manager for the Physics of the Cosmos program and the Cosmic Origins program at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, Ahmed has played a significant role in spearheading developments at the organisation. Growing up in Peshawar and studying at in PAF College Lower Topa, Ahmed studied at both the University of Maryland and the prestigious George Washington University, attaining degrees in Mechanic. He has received the NASA Group Achievement Award, 2001; the Goddard Space Flight Centre Group Achievement Award, 1995; and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, 1995. Mansoor has been a member of the US government Senior Executive Service (SES) in 2007. He currently holds the emeritus status with NASA.

We interviewed Mansoor to hear more about his career path, his inspirations, and where he hopes to take STEM in the future!

Q1) What motivated you to choose the career that you have today? What were the biggest barriers? First of all, let me clarify that I am not an astronomer or astrophysicist. My background is in mechanical engineering and since the past 20 years, in project management. Due to my position at NASA, I did work very closely with astronomers and astrophysicists. In a sense, they were my customers. They come up with their research ideas and wishes and my role was to figure out how to build the space observatory that will enable the researchers to achieve their goals. While growing up, I never imagined that I would be working for NASA one day. I always wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. In that pursuit, I was selected in the PAF Cadet College, Lower Topa to eventually join the air force. Unfortunately, in 10th grade, I started to need glasses, which made me medically unfit to fly. With my continued fascination with airplanes, I then decided to study aeronautical engineering in college. That degree was useful in getting a job at NASA as a thermal engineer; a sub-discipline of aerospace/mechanical engineering that deals with heat transfer. Once at NASA, I demonstrated my leadership capabilities in any project I was assigned and continued to rise within NASA. I retired from NASA as the Director of the Astrophysics Projects Division. I can’t really think of any major barriers that I had to face during my career. It is important to have a passion and then the drive to pursue that passion, no matter where it takes you. I believe my passion for being close to jet fighters ended me up at NASA. The key factor in a successful career is to do the best job one can do in any assignment. Which means having a clear picture of what the job is, or the problem you are trying to solve, determining the most straightforward path to solving the problem, identifying what resources you will need, which may include other experts (you are never expected to know everything), and completing the job the most efficient and timely way. If you enjoy your work, your best will shine through and be noticed by your superiors. Q2) Could you discuss your efforts to promote astronomy and astrophysics amongst the Pakistani youth? Not being in Pakistan myself, my efforts are rather limited. In the past few years, I have been visiting Pakistan and giving talks at various educational facilities to introduce the youth with the wonders of the universe; what we have discovered so far and the mysteries yet to be answered. I hope that these talks will motivate the youth towards STEM fields. With my connections with the astronomers and astrophysicists in the US, I have been able to connect Pakistani students with them to receive guidance. I must add that you don’t have to be an astronomer or astrophysicist to work in these fields. Any STEM related field is necessary in the world of astronomy since someone has to build the machinery that will be used by the astronomers.

Q3) Why should aspiring researchers and astronomers look forward to the launch of James Web telescope? James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to see beyond what Hubble is able to see today. Hubble instruments are optimized for the visible light spectrum. Galaxies that are farther away ( and therefore older) transmit their light in infra-red spectrum so Hubble cannot see them. With JWST, we will be able to see deeper and therefore farther in time. Which means we expect to see the very first stars that were born after the big bang. Besides this, JWST has several other objectives that will hopefully answer some of the mysteries of the universe.

Q4) What effective steps should Pakistan take to reenter the ongoing space race? I would not put it in terms of a “Space Race”. Its more appropriate to think of Pakistan as becoming a nation that takes advantage of the opportunities in space. To begin with, Pakistan should focus on space applications that have a direct impact on the Pakistani citizens, in terms of economic growth/improving the quality of life and let the wealthy nations take the lead on the pure research in astrophysics and astronomy. This means having the primary focus on Earth science rather than Space science. Pakistan can start with building satellites and instruments that studies Pakistani agriculture, water ways, etc. from space or enable disaster predictions/recovery activities in Pakistan. Technology and knowhow required to build and launch an earth observing satellite is no different than building one for astrophysics and astronomy. Same STEM disciplines are required. And the approach provides economic benefits to general society as the end user of the data obtained from space. This approach will incentivize private industry to take part in the program and hopefully create a new industry in Pakistan.As the experience base increases, Pakistan can then venture into the pure research aspects of space science. The above approach doesn’t limit Pakistanfrom taking part in astrophysics. Pakistani’s can work on developing the new technologies that will be required for future astrophysicsmissions. This means being aware of future technological needs and preparing Pakistani capabilities in developing them. There is always a need for a low-cost capability to launch spacecraft into space, weather for earth science or space science. Pakistan could build a medium-size launch vehicle that can be offered to the space faring nations as a ride to space for their space observatories. I think Pakistan is far ahead of being able to create this industry, as compared to the other options mentioned above. Q5) What do you think is the future of space research and development in Pakistan? As I mentioned above, Pakistan can start focusing on Earth Science. The latest trend in space today is CubeSats. Pakistan could initiate a program to build and launch a CubeSat for earth-based application. I believe the Institute of Space Technology (IST) has already launched one. This could be a steppingstone to build an infrastructure to develop this industry and train the youth in building and launching space observatories.

What do you think Pakistan can and should do to progress in the field of STEM?

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