Against all odds: Pakistan-born woman a leading engineer at NASA
The story of a Pakistani born woman, who survived the war in the Gulf, lived as a refugee in the desert and then went on to become a part of NASA is definitely heart-warming.
Hibah Rahmani is a rocket engineer at NASA and her tale serves as a role model to girls all over the world, that no matter how bleak things appear at times, they have it within themselves to defy all odds and break stereotypes.
Rahmani was born in Pakistan. Her family moved to Kuwait when she was barely a month old. She spent a peaceful childhood in the Arabian Gulf, until war broke out between Iraq and Kuwait in the early 90s.
“My fondest memory growing up is taking walks with my family at night, either in the desert or on the sidewalk by the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, looking up at the sky to admire the moon and stars, and thinking about astronauts such as Neil Armstrong who have stepped on the moon,” she said. “It was around this time I developed a passion for science, space and astronomy.”
However, those memories came to an end when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and she had to flee with her family to no man’s land near the Iraq-Jordan border. They reached at night and the camp was out of tents. Her family had to spend the nights under an open sky in the desert.
While that time was characterised by misery and hardships for her and her family, it was also the start of something pure – her newfound love for stars.
“Even though this was a tough time for us, one of the things I remember from that night was having a nice view of the sky with the golden moon and stars, while trying to sleep on the cold desert sand. It reminded me of my goals and dreams.”
After a brief stay in Jordan, she traveled with her mother and sister to Pakistan. Her father was in the US at the time of the invasion but the family got reunited back in Pakistan. This incident served as the catalyst for her newfound dream, and she was determined to make it to where she can take her study of stars further – NASA.
The US-led coalition brought an end to the Gulf War and a ceasefire was signed in February 1991. Rahmani moved back to Kuwait with her family and decided to become an engineer.
After completing high school in Kuwait, she moved to the US in 1997 and completed her bachelor’s in computer engineering at the University of Central Florida (UCF). After graduating in 2000, she started working for Boeing as a systems engineer for the International Space Station (ISS).
“I was involved with integrated testing of the ISS components and sometimes astronauts would stop by to either view or participate in the testing,” Rahmani said.
“It is during this time that I developed a strong desire to become an astronaut and started taking steps toward that goal.”
This led her to complete a more advanced degree, this time a masters in electrical and computer engineering from Georgia Tech between 2002 and 2005.
Career in NASA
In 2008, Rahmani accepted her current position at NASA’s Engineering and Technology Directorate at Kennedy.
“I support NASA’s Launch Services Program, working on expendable launch vehicles such as the Pegasus XL and Falcon 9,” she said.
“I provide technical expertise, follow launch vehicle testing, perform data reviews and provide technical assessments of engineering issues.”
Pegasus is the Orbital Science Corp’s rocket used for launching payloads while the Falcon 9 is a SpaceX launch vehicle used to boost the Dragon spacecraft to the space station for resupply missions.
Hibah says “The happiest and most exciting moment of my job is to watch a rocket take off from the launch pad and go into space.”
Her strong passion for her work is evident from her voluntary public affairs activities to inspire others. She says “I love to inspire others. I speak to students at local schools about my career and have volunteered as a science fair judge.”
She also provides real-time updates to NASA’s LSP Twitter and Facebook accounts during launch countdowns when she is not providing engineering support to the mission staff. \
“I have the privilege of working with an amazing team, while doing what I love,” she says. Her key to success is that she sets some very high goals.
“The experiences of my life have taught me to always dream big and to never give up, because you can achieve whatever you want if you work hard.”
She asks the youth, especially girls, to “stay focused and dream big.” That is the philosophy she followed ever since she fell in love with the stars in a desolate Jordanian desert.