Fifty years ago, Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam conceived the idea of the country’s first space research programme and national space agency in 1961.
But today, the only achievement that Pakistan can boast of is the successful launch of its first fully functional communication satellite, the Paksat-1R, whose first anniversary comes this August.
This satellite, however, was not indigenously built. China was behind Paksat-1R’s design, built, launch and even funding; only a few components were built by our engineers.
India, on the other hand, has been able to launch around 60 satellites to date in spite of launching its space programme eight years after Pakistan. It has even managed to launch its own unmanned lunar probe, the Chandrayaan-1, into orbit in 2008.
So where did we go so wrong in our space programme?
One of the main differences between India and Pakistan’s space agencies is that while one is headed by scientists, the other is currently headed by retired army generals, and has been for the last 11 years.
The space agency of Pakistan too initially was headed by scientists and many prominent names had a significant role. The last civilian scientist to have headed the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) was Dr Abdul Majid, who planned the Paksat communication satellite system and satellite launch vehicle projects.
On his retirement in April 2001, Majid handed over charge to Major General (retd) Raza Hussain, whose tenure lasted till August, 2010.
Since then the Suparco fort is being held by Major General (retd) Ahmed Bilal.
On the other hand, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has throughout its history been manned by scientists. Between 2001 and now, India has managed to launch more than 30 satellites. Pakistan for the same period managed only two satellites, including the Paksat-1, which was an acquired dysfunctional satellite and the current full fledged communication satellite Paksat-1R launched by China in 2011.
It was on Dr Salam’s advice that a Space Sciences Research Wing of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was established. Later, this wing became known as the Suparco in 1964.
To understand the significance of Salam’s forward thinking, who was then the scientific advisor to President Ayub, one has to take into account the fact that the world’s first satellite Sputnik-1 was launched just recently in 1957 by Russia and the US was yet to plant its first man on the moon.
Salam held a meeting with two PAEC scientists Dr Salim Mehmud and Tariq Mustafa, who were studying abroad in 1960 in Washington, and revealed that the Pakistan government had approved a classified mission to begin its own space research programme. He advised the two young scientists to join NASA to study rocket science.
NASA, during those years, was in a race to put an American on the moon. In this connection, they invited Pakistan along with other countries to participate in their project. NASA provided the two scientists with rocket components to take back home along with training and support on the condition that their findings would be shared.
It was in this connection that the Rahber series of rockets were launched from Sonmiani Rocket Range in June, 1962 that conducted experiments on the Earth’s atmosphere at a height of 130 kilometers. Later, the Shahper series was also launched that conducted experiments at a height of 150kms above the surface of earth.
Also, in the 60s, a Doppler radar tracking station was established in the country as part of a global network.
New facilities and labs were set up that received Spanish beacon satellites, and feeds from an application satellite that had been relocated in 1975 by Nasa over the Indian ocean for one year.
In 1973, American Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene A Cernan (Commander), Ronald E Evans (Command Module Pilot) and Harrison H Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot) visited Karachi amid great fanfare. It was also during the 1970s that the Islamabad Ionospheric Station within Quaid-e-Azam University was set up and the NASA Landsat ground station was established near Rawat.
Everything, it seemed, was moving in the right direction.
Suparco under Zia
After General Ziaul Haq usurped power, he promulgated the Suparco Ordinance No. XX of 1981, which granted the body autonomous status.
During the same period, a communication satellite project called Paksat was initiated.
Also, a 10-meter diameter satellite ground station for interception of satellite transmissions was set up in 1983 that was mainly designed against India.
A leading scientist told The Express Tribune that back then, the idea was to launch a satellite that could stage a ‘cultural counter attack’ on India with the influx of new Pakistani TV channels.
But when Gen Zia visited the Suparco headquarters in 1984, he announced an abrupt end to the Paksat project citing a lack of funds. It was during this period that many scientists associated with Suparco left the organisation. Funds were frozen, and there was a complete lack of innovation.
Some scientists, however, refused to quit and carried on. It was during this period that two ground stations in Karachi and Lahore were set up in 1986 in preparation for the launch of Badr-1, which was an experimental low earth orbiting satellite.
It was eventually launched on 16 July 1990 from China using the Long March 2E launcher and completed its designed life for around 35 days.
The country’s second satellite Badr-B was then launched after much delay on 10 Dec 2001 from the Baikonour Cosmodrome, Kazakistan.
An insider within Suparco says that to this day no one knows what exactly happened to the satellite when contact was lost with it. The cause was never fully investigated.
Expired orbital slots
When Pakistan failed to launch its Paksat satellites, the two orbital slots 38 E longitude and 41 E longitude acquired for it in the Geo Synchronous Orbit expired in 1994.
A new application for the allocation of five GSo slots (38E, 41E, 30E, 88E and 101E) was filed. Although granted, Pakistan faced the risk of losing its priority 38 E slot, if it didn’t launch its own satellite by April 2003.
In December 2002, Pakistan acquired a satellite from the American satellite-building firm Hughes Global Systems (HGS) at a cost of around five million dollars.
HGS had designed a satellite for Indonesia, but after a battery problem occurred making it useless during certain hours of the day, it was sold to Pakistan as Paksat-1.
Later, General Pervez Musharraf would claim that “Pakistan’s space programme is now ahead of India after the formal launching of Paksat-I and this is due to the hard work of our scientists.”
Suparco chairman Maj Gen (retd) Ahmed Bilal, in an interview with The Express Tribune, said that Pakistani scientists were ‘on a learning curve’ which was why they chose to ‘fast forward’ their expertise with the help of the Chinese for Paksat-1R.
He clarified that China had given a soft loan for Paksat-1R, whereas all the cost of the ground control facilities within Pakistan were borne by the government of Pakistan.
Bilal remained vague on Suparco’s history, saying, “Yes, mistakes were made in the past, but we have to move ahead.”
When asked about the Vision 2040 programme that was approved by the ousted prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in January 2012, he said: “we should be able to make, produce and launch our own satellite [in the future]. That is our hallmark [sic].”
He said the Paksat-1R has a life span of 15 years and his suggestion was to have another communication satellite in space by 2021.
“National demands will dictate the number of satellites the country needs,” he said.
He said that Pakistan should have at least three remote sensing satellites that should be launched every three years.
“We will be focusing on different types of remote sensing satellites and their applications in the next seven-eight years.”
But if Suparco’s vision for 2040 is limited to building and launching our own satellite, one wonders how far ahead the rest of the world will be in the space race by then.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2012.