Pakistan wants to send space program into global big league
US President Donald Trump recently announced his desire to create a “Space Force.” This would be a new branch of the military aimed at protecting and furthering the domination of America’s considerable footprint in space and to provide a fillip to efforts to colonize the Moon, Mars and beyond. This will doubtless not only enhance global interest in the next generation of space exploration and commerce, but also likely trigger a new space race among countries to press for national advantage.
Currently 72 countries have a space program, but only 14 of these have a basic launch capability, while six have advanced launch capability, or a space launch vehicle (SLV). Only the US, Russia and China have demonstrated human space flight capabilities, while only the US has landed humans on the Moon. China and Russia have now acquired the capability to do so, while the US, Russia, China and India all plan separate manned missions to the Moon or Mars by 2035.
But where does Pakistan fit into all this? Pakistan was one of the first countries to launch a space program, creating the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) in 1961. In 1962, it developed and deployed its first indigenous rocket, Rehbar-1, becoming just the third country in Asia and only 10th in the world with this capability, following it up with an advanced version, Rehbar-2, the same year. However, Pakistan lost interest in pursuing its space program with full vigor until neighboring India tested a nuclear weapon in 1974, necessitating a nuclear program of its own. In 1990, Pakistan developed its first indigenous communications satellite, Badar-1, and in 2001 an advanced version, Badar-2.
While not lacking in commitment, unlike neighboring India, Pakistan has not consistently employed the necessary resources to find a place in the list of countries with SLV capabilities that would allow it to, among other things, launch satellites and other manned vehicles. It certainly has the requisite basic technical infrastructure, manpower and capabilities. Pakistan is already in the select club of countries with a military nuclear program with demonstrated capacity to manufacture and deliver multiple-stage intercontinental ballistic missiles, which also require basic launch mechanisms.
While not lacking in commitment, Pakistan has not consistently employed the necessary resources to find a place in the list of countries with SLV capabilities that would allow it to, among other things, launch satellites and other manned vehicles.
Currently Suparco operates space satellites of its own and has recoverable rocket operations capability. What it doesn’t have is a manned space program, although it is currently working on developing one. However, this will have to be preceded by the development of prior capacities relating to multiple-satellite launch and recovery, developing and deploying cryogenic rocket engines, and operating extraterrestrial probes. It is currently working on revisiting its space mission to incorporate all these technical capacities.
In 2018, Pakistan has set in motion a flurry of initiatives that aim at nudging the country into an expansive overall scientific endeavor and catapulting its space program into the global big league. In its latest national budget, the government enhanced Suparco funding by a third to $41 million. This includes money for three new initiatives — an $11.7 million multi-mission satellite (PakSat-MM1); an $8.7 million program to establish space centers in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad; a $1.7 million Space Application Research Centre in Karachi; a $7.2 million multi-purpose Pakistan remote sensing satellite that will be launched in 2018; and the testing and operationalization of a four-stage indigenous SLV. Pakistan has already completed three of the four stages of its SLV.
To augment its space and allied science programs, Pakistan in April launched four major centers of excellence in cutting-edge technologies. The first was the National Centre of Artificial Intelligence, which is part of a three-year national AI program. The second was the National Centre of Robotics and Automation, built as a consortium of 12 technology universities and 45 advanced learning labs, grouping together more than 200 Ph.D. scientists and technologists. The third was the National Centre for Cyber Security, and the fourth was the National Centre of Big Data and Cloud Computing. These institutions have been formed with the mission of accelerating technological development through scaling up the availability of the scientific community to advance the national space and allied science programs.
These dramatically expanding initiatives and budgets indicate that Pakistan is cognizant of the formidable advantages India has over it in both commercial and military applications of its space program. For Pakistan to align its military and economic ambitions with its space technology capacities, it will have to invest in expanding the base of its space program and match it with the requisite resources and manpower. Whether or not Pakistan wants to establish a cadre of astronauts and send them to the Moon, Mars and beyond, it is not clear yet. But, to do so, it will have to first build a formidable capacity to climb into the orbit of the pale blue dot that is our home planet.
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1