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Between the moon and sceptics

The first images from Pakistan’s first lunar satellite suggests the mission reached its goals. So why the negativity?

By Zeeshan Ahmad |
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PUBLISHED May 12, 2024

On Friday, China handed over to Pakistan data from the latter country’s first lunar satellite, launched exactly a week prior. Included in the data were the first images the CubeSat ICUBE-Qamar beamed back after successfully entering the moon’s orbit, marking what is rightfully a significant milestone for Pakistan’s space programme and future space ambitions.

Largely flying under the radar until a few weeks prior to it’s launch as part of the payload of China’s Chang’e 6 space mission, the ICUBE-Q initiative has since then drawn heavy attention from Pakistan’s leadership and media. As the Long March-5, the largest rocket China has launched till date, blasted off with the Chang’e 6 probe on May 3 from the island of Hainan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and President Asif Ali Zardari were quick to express their felicitations to the nation. Both hailed the launch as a milestone, with the premier lauding the Pakistani scientists and engineers involved for “proving their mettle … like the expertise they exhibited in the nuclear technology [programme].”

“This is a historic milestone in the technological development,” Shehbaz said, adding “By this achievement, Pakistan has entered a new era of exploring space for productive purposes.”

Deputy Prime Minister Ishaq Dar joined the chorus of praise on the social media platform X and congratulated the young Pakistani students and scientists on the launch. “Today’s launch from Hainan … is a good example of countries and organisations coming together for space cooperation and shared benefits,” he added.

The celebrations by key figures in Pakistan’s present leadership appear to have rubbed certain segments of society the wrong way, both within Pakistan and naturally in India, which successfully landed the Chandrayaan-3 lunar probe on the moon’s surface last year. Lacking insight into both the project's scope and the nature of scientific research, many social media users sought to disparage the ICUBE-Q project simply for sake of it.

Some tried to downplay the achievement while others opted for the standard criticism space exploration encounters the world over: ‘are there not enough problems on planet Earth to solve?’ In Pakistan’s case, against the backdrop of political turmoil, economic crisis and general disillusion, that criticism morphed into solving the country’s ‘real’ issues first. Comparisons were also drawn to India’s space research, particularly the Chandrayaan-3. On both sides of the bother, the ICUBE-Q was framed as ‘piggybacking’ on China’s success.

From a psychological standpoint, it is not hard to see where at least some of the domestic criticism is coming from, even if it is gravely misinformed. Pakistanis have had a tough few years, not that things in our country have ever been ideal. With no silver lining on the horizon and this year’s election controversies still fresh in many people’s mind, the present government also seems to be cursed with a reverse Midas touch. Anything it chooses to celebrate will be criticised by certain Pakistanis simply for that fact.

There are some hints that those out of the establishment’s favour have at the very least, stoked the fans of negativity regarding the lunar initiative. Space research, at one point, was among the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government’s grandest ambitions. It would not really be ‘rocket science’ to conclude that some of the cynicism is inspired by the party’s on-going struggle against the powers that be.

As Pakistanis, however, it is a shame we are losing sight of what the ICUBE-Q project really is. As I wrote in the weeks leading up to the launch – and as, of all people, the deputy premier touched upon in his post on X – the CubeSat or miniature satellite is foremost a student-built payload. Far from riding Beijing’s coattails, it was China’s National Space Agency that offered the opportunity for partners willing to send a payload as part of the Chang’e 6 mission.

It should be a matter of immense pride that a proposal developed by students and researchers from Pakistan’s Institute of Space Technology was accepted out of all Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation member states. But if nothing else, just try to imagine yourself in the team’s shoes as you see the first images of the moon beamed back by a satellite you helped build.

On the ICUBE-Q webpage, the following parameters were listed to outline the success of the mission:

From the information that has been released to public, it appears that the project has been successful on all counts. Think of how encouraging that must be for the students and scientists who helped them.

Pakistanis tend to lament how the country lags behind when it comes to science and research. And yet, many of us don’t quite understand the hard work and incremental steps it takes to build capability and expertise domestically. As disillusioned as many are politically, and understandably so, perhaps we should still try to acknowledge celebrate achievements that merit it. In an ideal world, the pursuit of knowledge should not be politicised. Let’s aspire to that.