The world's developing nations are boosting expenditures to make their way through space. In the upcoming years, the space economy is going to be the trillion-dollar industry by leaping over the global economy. Space exploration has drastically changed the dynamics of human lifestyle and functionalities. Recently, India’s lunar exploration mission, Chandrayaan-3, successfully landed on the far side of the Moon, making India the fourth nation to reach the Moon. But Pakistan, like all its academic, and economic sectors, is far behind in the scientific sector too, despite being an early participant in the space age way before India entered the space. Yes, Pakistan was amongst the earliest space agencies in the world with an active rocket program in the 1960s. But now India’s space program is light years ahead of Pakistan.
So, the question is what happened to Pakistan’s space program, even though it was among the most active space exploring nations? In 1957, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched its first space satellite SPUTNIK-1, which brought a wave of shock to the world. As its opponent, the United States of America had hoped to be the first to accomplish this benchmark. Within a year, US facilities created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to break the Soviet superiority in space and they came forward with a unique objective of moon landing. This push to the Moon made the US reach its close ally Pakistan as it needed information about the upper atmosphere from various parts of the world including the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. For this purpose, it offered ally nations permission to establish rocket ranges.
Pakistan President Ayub Khan, who was on a state visit to the USA along with his chief Scientific Advisor and physicist Abdus Salam, accepted this offer. This made Pakistan reach its first step towards space exploration. Abdus Salam convinced Ayub Khan to start its own space program with coming US foreign funding. So, on September 16, 1961, under the supervision of Pakistan's Nobel Prize Laureate, Pakistan created the first space agency named as "Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission" making the country the first Muslim and South Asian country to have a national space program.
On the 7th of June 1962, under NASA’s training facilities, _ Pakistan successfully launched its first two-stage rocket named Rehbar-1 in space in 9 months. From 1962 to 1972, Pakistan launched rockets into space two hundred times. In parallel, India had a comparable start and sent its first rocket in 1963 with NASA’s assistance under the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSOPAR), in 1962, which was later succeeded by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). But now, India has reached the moon and Pakistan is out of the league in this race.
To answer the question, ‘Why Pakistan left far behind in the race of space exploration despite being the earliest to have a space agency?’ we must dig deep to understand what the major factors that contributed to the failure of an expected successful voyage are. Both internal and external factors played a major role in preventing this space program from moving forward.
Space has always been a dual-use technology. It carries both exploratory and military standpoints. The same technology that inspires humanity to explore beyond its existence has the same capacity to carry weapons and missiles across the globe. Even NASA's creation had a more military aspect as the US most feared the military superiority of the Soviets than exploratory aspects. Likewise, Pakistan’s space program was a part of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), which later superseded into an independent institute in 1961.
From day one, political instability, hybrid governance, and security threats have caught the country in a tightening rope. Initially, this space program was launched for domestic purposes, more significantly for space research development. But due to regional conflicts, the country went through the war of 1965 and state integration in 1971. This existential crisis led Pakistan to change its trajectory of space development from civil commercial purposes to defense programs. The military control like all other state institutes, took over the charge of SUPARCO as well. This security compulsion under the influence of military dictatorship has made the leadership and the public more pruned to see what advantages space exploration could bring in the future. These external factors played a key role in diminishing Pakistan from the space race.
In 1981, under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, SUPARCO was reestablished through presidential ordinance but entirely inclined towards military use of space technology as India’s nuclear testing in 1974 made the national priority completely shifted towards defense programs. This shift continued under another dictator, General Pervaiz Musharaf, who placed SUPARCO under National Command Authority. Facing US sanctions due to its nuclear program, Pakistan leaned towards China for scientific exploration. _ In 1990, Pakistan sent its first digital communication satellite named Badar 1. Follow-up mission, like Badar B, was launched on a Russian Rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2001. In the last two decades, China and Pakistan deepening relations has helped Pakistan to have ties with China’s space program as well.
Now as the times change, space exploration is essential for economic growth too, as the navigation system, global positioning systems, internet, and global networking are directly linked to economic growth. But, due to lack of effective legislation and no long-term visionary planning toward scientific exploration, it has cost Pakistan a lot. Meanwhile, India has reached the far side of the moon because of its strong legislative foundation yet Pakistan is lacking the required resources for establishing the space infrastructure. Pakistan’s total budget for the space program is 22 million dollars while India is spending billions of dollars on its scientific research. The difference is all about the national priorities.
Also, politicians continuously have used the religious narrative to brainwash the masses about scientific reasoning by labeling every discovery as fake or a waste of money. The past leadership despite having the US funds did not grow the engineering industry. This leads to the loss of scientific industry and all the brains like IT experts, engineers, and physicists go abroad for technological and engineering opportunities. International space agencies like NASA, ESA, and ISRO, work with amateurs and private space agencies as well for research programs. However, the insufficient collaboration hindered Pakistan’s progress in space.
To take SUPARCO on the level of other space agencies, firstly Pakistan needs to go through major institutional reforms and free its space program from military control. For decades, the supervision of this program has been under retired military personnel. The country needs to give this position to the scientific gurus to take its research program to a competitive level. It can never be able to grow under military influence as its priorities entirely lean towards the weapon industry. It should be an independent civil entity.
Secondly, Pakistan needs to reset its national priorities and make an executable long-term strategy. It demands consistency to make the major changes. Even though Pakistan did lay out a space strategy in 2014, which was first called Pakistan National Space Program 2040, it is now renamed as Space Vision 2047. It aims to build infrastructure to make low-orbit Earth satellites and launch five Geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites. But, it will only be executable with strategic planning.
Also, international collaborations will create a significant change. In the IT and engineering sectors, Pakistan can collaborate with international entities to contribute most effectively and diversify its connection with other space agencies as well. Even with its close ally China, with the right approach and collaborations, Pakistan can build effective space infrastructure for development. Pakistan has already aboard the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), a China-led project that will be constructed in the 2030s. So, with a reasonable platform, Pakistan will be able to revive its distressed space program.
The only way to get SUPARCO back on track_ in Pakistan is to build a national space policy and make it executable with a statutory framework. Only with the right approach and consistency can it commence its development in technological development. These ventures will not only give Pakistan a strong position through bilateral and multilateral collaborative development programs, but also reverse its long-term economic crisis.
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