May 19, 2015

T.H. Huxley once said that, “the known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land”.

Huxley’s business to ‘reclaim more land in the ocean of inexplicability’ requires the power to dream, to think big and that overwhelming desire to  make a mark for oneself in history. Yes, there are people who possess all the aforementioned qualities but they don’t come along as often as we need to them do. But do we have to wait for such messiahs when that mantle of responsibility can be borne by each and every one of us?

The resources available to us on Earth are in trouble and learned minds are sounding the alarm bells. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Environment Outlook: Environment for Development, GEO 4 frankly states that the population of Earth ‘has reached a stage where the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available’. In the form of the Mars One project, we are already looking to establish colonies on Mars.

All over the world there has been a renewed interest in space, an interest  fuelled more by economics than just a passion for exploration. From asteroid mining to tourism, private companies are investing to make space travel cheaper and, thanks to our fast evolving technology, cost per space launch is decreasing.

But where does this leave countries like Pakistan? Yes, terrorism is a huge issue, education needs an overhaul, democracy needs to strengthen its roots, moderation in views and freedom of speech needs to be encouraged, and a massive incentive is needed to resolve these issues. Perhaps we can believe in something bigger than ourselves. What is that big dream, that goal around which we can all rally?

Let us dream then.

Space, is not the final frontier (with apologies to Star Trek fans). It’s the beginning of a journey where the benefits far outweigh the costs. Space exploration has been hugely beneficial to us and I am not even talking about the the discovery of new planets, galaxies, far flung quasars or how all of this came into being. I am talking about the technology behind your Google maps, your internet, your computers, your powdered drinks, your water purification systems, your ultrasound machines. Look around, you owe all of this to space industry. Had humans not decided to take that ‘giant leap’, our tech industry would have been much poorer.

Pakistan too needs to take this giant leap. The need of the hour is not skills, it’s not resources. It’s the dream for a better future. We all think of a better future in individual capacities but not as a collective endeavour. It is time to seriously think about the future of our country. Developing a space industry is neither an alien idea nor is it something that Pakistanis haven’t dreamt of before. In fact our space programme owes its existence to the tireless efforts of Dr. Abdus Salam. But we have failed to realize his dream.

The rockets which were supposed to carry scientific payloads were turned into deliverers of destruction, thanks to our obsession to become the Fortress of Islam. Our space agency Suparco lags woefully behind its regional neighbors like Iran (comparison with China and India would be ludicrous). Also, there is a lack of interest shown by our establishment to develop the space program. Space sciences in Pakistan are usually taken to be determinants of our lunar calendar and the prayer timings — that’s on the layman level. While Suparco is only interested in its GIS, remote sensing and agriculture support capabilities. Its vision for 2040 is to develop capabilities to indigenously produce and launch satellites, that too by 2040 when humans will have already colonized Mars on a limited scale and when scientists might have already discovered signs of alien life forms.

Clearly, this vision needs to be reassessed.

But where there is a lack of vision in our establishment, the efforts of organizations like KaAS (Karachi Astronomers Society) and SGAC Pakistan (Space Generation Advisory Council), and other space enthusiasts are a breath of fresh air. NASA’s Global Reach: Pakistan received a very positive response and it showed that our students are interested in space technologies.

At the same time, while the efforts by small local organizations and foreign partners is commendable, a much larger initiative is needed to create  positive widespread awareness about the need for a robust and dynamic space programme. Suparco has to realize the huge responsibility that has fallen on its shoulders and act on it. And we as a nation have to support it.

In the words of  JK Rowling; “There are times when you have to choose between what is easy and what is right.” For space exploration in Pakistan, this is one of those times. But first let us dream, for the dreams of today are the realities of tomorrow.

The author tweets @JamalNeutron