IBM engineer chases big dreams of space

Growing up, IBM engineer Naeem Altaf remembers sleeping on the roof of his house in Pakistan and looking up at the stars.

Altaf said he and his family did not have luxuries like air conditioning, and would sleep on the roof during hotter days. Despite the discomfort, Altaf said he kept his mind busy by thinking about the wonders of space.

“When you’re sleeping on the roof and you’re looking at the sky and you’re seeing these amazing things, you think, ‘if this is so amazing, what will heaven be like?’” Altaf said.

Altaf and his family moved to the U.S. when he turned 18. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied computer science. He worked as a software engineer for a small company before starting his career at IBM in 2000.

Now, 44 years old, Altaf is a distinguished engineer at the company and is in charge of its space technology. Altaf, who is based in Austin, said part of his job is to find interesting space-related projects that could benefit from a partnership with IBM.

“I’m always doing research on what startups are popping up and seeing who we can partner with,” he said.

One of the projects that Altaf has taken on is related to the management of objects that are already in space, such as satellites and potentially hazardous space debris.

Though different organizations have processes for collecting data on the objects that are floating around in Earth’s orbit, Altaf said he is looking for a secure, blockchain-based solution to bring all the data together into a usable platform.

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Without such a platform, Altaf said space travel will become increasingly difficult and dangerous as more objects are launched into orbit. Altaf said his vision is to create a consortium of organizations that use IBM’s platform to share and access the data so that they can better plan and track travel paths.

“Blockchain can help, because multiple agencies will be able to share the data, and because it will be blockchain, you can know exactly who is accessing it,” Altaf said. “IBM will provide the blockchain platform (and) you bring the participants into the system. The data is yours — we’re not taking your data.”

Altaf said he loves his role at IBM, because his status as a distinguished engineer means that he can pursue his interests, which in addition to space tech involves quantum computing and edge computing.

And though he does not have a specialty in aerospace engineering, Altaf said his position at IBM gives him the opportunity to network with those who have the expertise to help him with his projects.

“You don’t need to know everything,” Altaf said. “You need to have a good idea, and you need to know who can work to make the idea happen. As long as you treat everyone with respect and give them credit for what they are doing, everything will come together.”

Altaf said he has already been making connections with professors at the University of Texas, and he hopes to work with companies like SpaceX and Lockheed Martin in the future.

Janet Ivey is the president of Explore Mars, a nonprofit with the mission of bringing different industry and government leaders together to promote the human exploration of Mars.

Ivey is also the CEO of Janet’s Planet, a company that uses live performances, television and online media to get kids interested in space exploration IBM engineer and science.

She said she and Altaf are working together on a project to send cubesats — miniature cube-shaped satellites — into orbit to help collect data for Altaf’s projects at IBM.

“We’re getting kids involved who don’t have a clue about these opportunities,” Ivey said.

As a father to three daughters, Altaf said getting the younger generation interested in math and science is something that is personally important to him.

He also said he pushes his children to seek out a future that is not ordinary or mundane.

“I tell my children almost every day, ‘you have a huge privilege in this country, so don’t just go do what everyone else does. Do something special,’” Altaf said.

Altaf, a devout Muslim, said his religion is a central foundation for him as well as his family. He added that he takes inspiration from Muslim scholars who were leading mathematicians, physicists and chemists of their time.

Altaf, whose studies and passion for learning has taken him from his rooftop in Pakistan to one of the largest companies in the world, said one verse from the Quran in particular has inspired him to pursue his passions.

The verse reads:

“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding.”

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