Nations rise and fall; and at any stage in the life of a nation, an inspired and committed youth plays a significant role in tipping the balance between the forces determining its fate.
What inspires the youth to put up a devoted effort for the wellbeing of society poses a complex question. These could be external factors like social fame, rivalry with other nations etcetera. But nothing inspires young inquisitive minds more than a paradigm-shifting breakthrough in the understanding of the Universe.
Nothing inspires like the achievement of a dream that has fuelled the imaginations of our predecessors.
Escaping the bounds of the Earth and reaching the distances of space is one such dream, which was made true by completing a manned mission to the moon.
President John F. Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade goal for a manned moon landing was the singular quest for NASA; and by achieving it, Neil Armstrong became known as the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Armstrong: a reluctant hero
Neil Armstrong was a professional engineer who loved flying. He had acquired his student pilot’s license by the age of 16. In September 1962, Armstrong was selected by NASA to be an astronaut.
On the Gemini 8 mission, Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott performed the first successful docking of a manned spacecraft with another space vehicle.
As a result of his remarkable credentials, he was selected as commander of the Apollo 11 mission.
As he stepped on the dusty surface, Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”. An apt description of a marvellous victory and yet so humble, these words have become one of the best known quotations in English language.
Armstrong put his piloting skills to good use on the moon landing which was fraught with danger. The lander had only about 30 seconds of fuel left when Armstrong put it down in an area known as the Sea of Tranquility and calmly radioed back to Mission Control on Earth, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”.
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, a fellow crew member of Apollo 11, told BBC radio that he regarded Armstrong as “a very capable commander and leader of an achievement that will be recognised until man sets foot on the planet Mars”.
Initially it was decided that while Armstrong would be in command of the mission, Aldrin would be the first to step on the moon; Armstrong would follow the naval tradition of being the last to leave the ship.
However, later on, top NASA officials realised that the first man on the moon would become immortal in the public’s eyes. In their opinion, the calm and recluse Armstrong was much more suitable for this role than Aldrin, a brilliant and outspoken mathematician, who loved to challenge authority.
After the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong worked at a desk job in NASA for several years. Later on he turned to the tranquillity of academic life and taught Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, and in 1992, he was the chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc.
He retained his interest in space exploration policy, and in 2010 he publicly expressed his disappointment at the cancellation of plans to send astronauts back to the moon. Armstrong was of the opinion that sending humans to the moon was not only desirable, but necessary for future exploration; even though NASA says it is no longer a priority.
When he was asked to describe what it was like to stand on the moon, he told CBS, “It’s an interesting place to be. I recommend it”.
To explore or not to explore
Is it really necessary to explore space when there is so much that needs to be done on earth?
This is a public policy question, but one should remember that it is always tempting to sacrifice long-term goals for short term needs.
H. G. Wells said many years ago that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.
One could present many arguments, from jobs and education to technology development and national security, for undertaking a robust space program. We should undertake it for the most basic of reasons, our self-preservation as a creative, not stagnant, society.
Space exploration has helped discover how the dinosaurs went extinct, how the moon formed, and how nuclear reactions work. From space exploration technology, the development of thousands of products have progressed, such as digital cameras, cordless power-tools, memory foam, satellite and cable TV, UV-proof sunglasses, and even Google Earth.
Top five reasons to keep exploring space
1- The Apollo missions promoted science education by inspiring a whole generation of kids to become astronauts, rocket scientists, and engineers.
2- Space science also helps in environmental research by studying air quality, climate change, alternative energy, and near-earth objects.
3- We are consuming earth’s natural resources pretty quickly. Space has virtually unlimited resources. It is all just a matter of collecting and bringing them back.
4- The more we explore the cosmos, the more it humbles us. Earth is just a tiny speck orbiting a mediocre yellow-dwarf star nowhere near the centre of our galaxy, let alone the universe.
5- The population on earth is growing exponentially while the resources required to support life are fast eroding. Space colonisation can be the ultimate solution.
At a stage in history, when Pakistan is struggling to keep its mainland intact and easily traversable for its general population, talk of space exploration might seem a bit farfetched.
The law and order problem created by terrorist insurgencies has severely damaged tourist activity in remote areas of the country. One might argue that prudence demands to first look into these ‘immediate’ problems at home and aspire for higher aims like space exploration later.
However, in this era of hyper globalisation with increasing technological capture of almost all aspects of life, one cannot simply afford to look the other way when the world is slowly preparing to break the shackles of gravity and move out of this planet.
I often wonder if people threw out the same criticisms at those explorers who dared to sail on wooden ships to discover ‘the new world’.
Will there be a Pakistani space age?
The Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) is Pakistan’s national space agency.
Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, conceived the idea of the country’s first space research program and the national space agency was set up in 1961. It was granted the status of a Commission in 1981.
Its main task is to conduct research in space science, space technology, and develop its peaceful application for the country. It aims to promote space applications for the socio-economic uplift of the country.
On 16 July 1990, Pakistan launched its first experimental satellite BADR-1. It was Pakistan’s first indigenously developed satellite and was launched from the Xichang Launch Centre, China. The satellite successfully completed its designed life.
SUPARCO launched the second experimental satellite BADR-B on December 10, 2001. It was an Earth Observation Satellite and was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. The satellite was designed by Space Innovations Limited from the UK.
Originally manufactured by Boeing and launched on February 1, 1996, Paksat 1 was Pakistan’s first geostationary satellite. Paksat-1R replaced Paksat-1on August 11, 2011.
This satellite has a designated life of 15 years, with initial targets to provide broadband internet, digital television, remote and rural telephony, emergency communications, tele-education and tele-medicine services across South and Central Asia, Eastern Europe, East Africa and the Far East.
SUPARCO, in collaboration with JPMC, has established a satellite communication-based telemedicine network as a pilot project.
Two sites have been connected through Paksat-1R satellite transponder, one at Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Centre (JPMC), with Karachi as the hub and another at Shikarpur civil hospital (interior Sindh) as a remote site. Specialists at JPMC can do live video conferencing with patients in Shikarpur, thus providing specialist health care services in rural areas.
Space science is not just about satellites and rockets; it pledges to satisfy human curiosity by answering questions about the deep mysteries of the Universe. It also helps in shaping modern lifestyle by producing helpful applications for all walks of life.
While policy makers in Pakistan focus on the development of natural sciences and engineering education in the country, they should not ignore space sciences, which can prove quite beneficial in a country’s socio-economic uplift.