There was once a time when Pakistan was at the head of the space race in Asia. Despite being the third Asian country, after Israel and Japan to launch a rocket into space, Pakistan’s space agency SUPARCO progressed much under the leadership of the Nobel prize winner Dr. Abdus Salam. But with time, corruption and messy politics, Pakistan’s technological advancement marked an unfortunate end.
Space exploration is an expensive national objective for the state to pursue. In addition, if a state is a developing country facing much pressing traditional and non-traditional threats, space exploration tends to end up an optional objective.
Every state has a right to prioritize which ever national objective it wants to achieve first. When it has issues like poverty, corruption, unemployment and terrorism etc. at hand, aiming for the space becomes a herculean task. Same happened in case of Pakistan.
However, a question arises that in the age of globalization, telecommunication and information technology is it plausible for a state to achieve its national objectives without investing into space technology? Space technology is becoming an essential as dependency on modern technology is increasing. Developing states cannot stand with developed nations of the world without investing into space technology. Space satellites are becoming a necessary technology to not only ensure state’s progress in information technology but they are vital for military interests of state as well. Space satellites are dual use technologies that are equally effective for military usage. These satellites enable the states in intelligence gathering, navigation and military communication, high resolution imagery and most importantly in developing early warning systems. With the help of early warning systems, states could detect the flight paths of incoming ballistic and cruise missile from enemy as well.
When the Space Program Started
In 1961, John F. Kennedy becomes the president of United States, the USSR puts the first man in space, but something equally momentous was happening in Pakistan at a time, where globally renowned physicist Abdus Salam is convincing president Ayub Khan to set up a national space agency, the first in the subcontinent. In September that year, Salam sets up the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) headquartered in Karachi – a full eight years before neighbor India formalizes its own space agency.
The initial years of the agency are buoyed by hope. Four top scientists are sent to NASA to study space technology and Salam’s growing stature in the scientific world – he would win the Physics Nobel Prize in 1979 – help attract talent to the nascent organization.
In 1962, Suparco launches its first rocket, Rehbar I, from a range off the Karachi coast with help from NASA, a year before India’s first rocket would blast off from the Thumba launching station. Pakistan becomes the third Asian country to launch rockets after Israel and Japan.
But despite its head start, the Suparco today is decades behind the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in both mission success and technological prowess.
ISRO broke a world record by sending 104 satellites into space Wednesday – in contrast, Suparco is not expected to have indigenous satellite launching and producing technology for at least two decades and the target it has set itself is 2040. India plans to reach Venus and revisit Mars by then, if not more.
But what happened to the subcontinent’s oldest space agency? The answer lies in a concoction of government apathy, poor education funding and an overarching military leadership dictating scientific goals.
In the 1970s, ISRO accelerates its technological and scientific intake in the run up to the first satellite launch Aryabhatta-I in 1975. But Suparco is already falling behind as the government shifts attention to the atomic bomb project, shifting key resources and scientists out of the space agency. The only high point of the decade is a visit by Apollo 17 astronauts. Pakistan would launch its first satellite, Badr I, only in 1990 with Chinese assistance.
Downfall of the Space Program
But the real fall comes in the 1980s and 1990s. First, President Zia-ul-Haq cuts off funding to major projects, including the flagship satellite communication launch. Then, military generals are placed atop the organization, replacing scientists and the focus of the agency becomes countering India, rather than independent research.
At the same time, the government disowns Salam for being Ahmadiyya and shuns all assistance that one of 20th century’s most important theoretical physicists could have offered. This affects the production of indigenous technology that is the backbone of ISRO or any modern agency, and makes Suparco dependent on foreign doles.
In contrast, ISRO launches its first communications satellite, starts technology sharing programmes with several countries and unveils a remote sensing satellite system that is now the largest in the world. The agency is also successful in attracting talent, helped by its autonomy and scientists at the helm.
Current State of Space Program
Due to a lack of resources, bureaucratic hurdles, and mismanagement, Pakistan’s space program, especially when it comes to commercial space exploration has seen a considerable decline. There have been some commendable successes on military applications, like the development of short- to medium-range ballistic missiles, but such achievements have come at the cost of almost every other facet of the Pakistani space project. For example, it would likely take Pakistan decades to achieve anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, something that is sorely needed given India’s satellite advantage.
Today there is little interest from the government or policy quarters (both the military and civilian apparatus) to advance Pakistan’s commercial space program and there are few schools, universities, or institutions focusing on the subject. The entire subject of space studies is in neglect; there is no national discourse, debate, or discussion in public circles about building a robust and potent space program. Pakistan continues to lag behind India, despite being the first to set up its space agency.
The SUPARCO website is evidence of the rudderless nature of Pakistan’s space program. It contains very little information regarding Pakistan’s space policy or vision. In fact, there is very little literature available anywhere on the policy-level national space mission. Such indifference toward an extraordinarily important area like space could prove very damaging.
Its current chairman — Qaiser Anees Khurrum – is a former top general. The agency has suffered a series of embarrassing failures in recent decades. It has had to give up orbital slots because it couldn’t launch in time, its first satellite was leased from the US and its second was launched in as late as 2011. Now, the only hope for the space agency is the Mission 2040. The Space Programme 2040 is a satellite development and launch programme of the Suparco, Pakistan’s supreme space research authority. The Space programme 2040 intends to replace the Badr satellite program and geo-stationary communication satellite. On 11 August, Paksat-IR was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre by China, making it first satellite to be launched under this programme. According to Suparco, five GEO satellites and six low earth orbit (LEO) satellites will be launched between 2011 and 2040.
The stated goals of the program are expected to gain significant experience in satellite development, practicing of space medicine, and to promote socio-economic sector in the country. While the programme intends to learn to develop the military and space technologies and to conduct experiments on fundamental sciences in space frontier, the government maintained that Space programme-2040’s prime purpose is to bring the benefits of the full spectrum of space technology to the people of Pakistan. On 15 July 2011, Prime minister Yousaf Gillani gave official approval of the programme with the 2011 budget.
Although another Pakistan-made satellite was launched earlier in 2018, the problem still remains that the launch was from China. Pakistan’s future in the space race has no hope until Suparco acquires the technology to construct its own rockets capable of sending satellites into space. Even now, while India launches rockets and creates world records, Pakistan is stuck on the atomic bomb.
The truth is, face-to-face wars have come to an end. The only way to defeat your enemy is by being technologically advanced.
Hopefully, the current government will take a look at this issue and support the Mission 2040 in bringing Pakistan back to the space race.