Nearly 20 years ago, I remember walking through the packed halls of the then Taj Mahal hotel in Karachi where the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Commission (Suparco) had set up a magnificent display of the cosmos and their crowning jewel, the first Pakistani satellite Badar-1.
I remember, though young I was, how it captured the imagination of the young and old alike. How travel to the galaxy of stars, which at the time was only felt to be a figment of Hollywood’s unrestrained imagination, seemed like a reality to us.
The Mars rover programme of Nasa in 1998 threw the world into frenzy as they watched the first ever set of photos from the Red Planet’s surface. In Pakistan though, we continued to grapple with the uncertainty of our political and economic future.
Fast forward to present day, space is once again capturing our attention with neighbouring India managing a successful programme of not just launching into space but orchestrating the highly complex mission of sending a satellite to Mars– and that too on a shoestring budget.
It speaks volumes about their focus and of the capacity they have managed to build.
Suparco, initially formed under Pakistan’s sole Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam, seems to be creaking along to its Indian counterparts. Starved of funds, its focus has been limited to communication satellites, tracking weather in addition to working on specific military applications.
From being at the forefront of space exploration and development in Asia with the launch of Rehbar-I in the early 1960s, Pakistan today is far behind its neighbours including Iran, India and China.
The government, which gave impetus to our space programme by putting ink to a 30-year programme in 2011 in concert with the launch of our first communications satellite, needs to expand that to work with our educational institutions and expatriates. It must focus on building our capacity to produce the kind of minds which can help expand our capacities at a much faster pace and secure the space future of our country.
Perhaps, Suparco should hold more events such as the one in the Taj Mahal around the country to generate greater interest in the public to help take our space programme beyond the stars.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2014.