Aiming for the moon — ambition, capacity and realism
As the world celebrated the half-century mark of Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the moon, the subcontinent saw a new dimension of regional rivalry emerging in July: India and Pakistan going for the moon.
Weeks after India launched its Chandrayaan mission to the moon where it is scheduled to land in September near the lunar south pole to explore water deposits, Pakistan’s Minister of Science and Technology announced sending the first Pakistani into space in 2020. While the pronouncement has provoked some spirited comments and the details are sketchy, the intention is very clear.
Pakistan cannot simply sit back watching Indian space crafts flying into outer space. It wants to be in the run for space exploration, but the question is why would it do so when there are many other pressing needs of an exploding population to take care of? The other question is, has it invested enough in developing a robust scientific community, and more specifically, in space-related technologies to match its words?
In answering these questions and reading Pakistan’s space designs carefully, we will have to keep the issue of its rivalry with India in mind. For a long time, Pakistan has been investing its resources in matching India’s nuclear capability and use of modern technologies for military purposes.
Let us not forget the point that at every stage of modernity, states have given due diligence to the employment of science and technology for enhancing national power and competing with other nations seen as enemies or threats. Even in the age of rising globalization, security has emerged at the forefront in which the choices of new technologies, like artificial intelligence, may play a big role in states designing their national security strategies and economic growth models.
Pakistan is not industrially and technologically as developed as India is, but it has been able to devote adequate resources to carry on its quest for balancing Indian power. We have more than enough evidence when it comes to its nuclear weapons and delivery development programs. It has been able to create an ‘optimal’, ‘full-spectrum’ deterrence by building institutions, training thousands of scientists and creating mostly an indigenous, self-reliant infrastructure, filling the gaps of deficiency by purchasing dual-use technologies or turning to China, its trusted strategic partner for decades.
It is a big question: whether and when Pakistan might be able to send its first Pakistani to orbit outer space, let alone send a mission to the moon.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Pakistan views India’s space program as very much a part of being woven into its great power ambitions. Pakistan and some countries in the West were alarmed by India claiming in March this year that its “scientists” had succeeded in shooting down a live satellite orbiting space.
The Indian Prime Minister boasted it was a great accomplishment, with India “registering its name in the list of space superpowers.” This capacity meant that any such power could destroy communication networks of any hostile state by bringing down its satellites. That is one of the reasons Pakistan has been devoting its resources to rocket technologies and missile development that could counterbalance an Indian threat in space.
It’s not exactly the same scenario, but India-Pakistan rivalry has some elements of the US-Soviet power competition. Fifty years back, both were trying to be the first in outer space and on the moon. The US achieved unparalleled success in landing its mission on the moon, while the Soviet mission crashed around the same time. And though space programs have multiple dimensions, within it are mostly integrated perennial elements of national security and prestige. Pakistan’s space program reflects both of these aspects.
Pakistan established its space agency way back in 1961, which has overtime changed into what is today the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission. It has multiple programs of education, training, research and development, which include communication satellites and missiles.
After experimenting with low-level weather rockets for decades, it seems to have graduated into a robust organization with a focus on space technologies. With Chinese assistance, it has sent into orbit remote sensing and communication satellites that it has developed indigenously. Last year, it allocated Rs. 4.7 billion for its new program which aims to expand space research infrastructure and invest in developing satellites for communication and military uses to reduce dependence on foreign space networks.
It is a big question: whether and when Pakistan might be able to send its first Pakistani to orbit outer space, let alone send a mission to the moon. If we go by its defense and security priorities and many achievements in this respect, there will no dearth of resources, resolve and political will.
Even before its plans for space mature, Pakistan seems to be investing resources in creating dedicated human and material resources in science and technologies that will go on to have economic and security benefits, as well spur deeper interest in creating scientific institutions and promoting scientific knowledge for development.