Epoch of its own

July 29, 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

LAST week, Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry announced that Pakistan will send a person — a first for this country — into space in 2022. This, by all accounts, is but a short while away. Apparently, we are told, the selection process shall begin in February 2020. Go figure. The people to be chosen amongst will be pilots.

Well, glad to hear that.

It could, of course, be pointed out that these remarks were made in a country where citizens barely have housing, healthcare or education, to say nothing of other essential needs — including food and nutrition as study after study has established. Research on the topic includes the recently released National Nutritional Survey 2018, a joint effort by the government and Unicef, which shows unequivocally that food insecurity runs deep in the country where nutritional knowledge in even food-secure households is abysmal.

Somewhere out there is a cherry-red Tesla Roadster reflecting Earth’s image.

But that may be a topic for some other time. Because the reality is that whether undereducated or underdeveloped or struggling, the Third World does have some history of sinking resources (even though none apparently appear to exist) into certain ventures. For instance, countries with a similar trajectory and comparable levels of effort have managed to ape others as far as their entry into space is concerned.

Consider that India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission, a space probe, as far back as 2013 (a feat achieved by the Indian Space Research Organisation). This was India’s first interplanetary mission, making the country the first from this part of the world to reach the Martian orbit — and doing so in its first attempt. China does not seem to be doing too badly, either, building upon success upon success of orbital satellites at the very least.

But back to the esteemed Mr Chaudhry, who promises that on top of Pakistan’s other considerable achievements, the country is poised to weather ‘space, the final frontier’, as the most memorable (and endlessly mind-expanding) Star Trek put it.

Ironic, then, that this resolve came during the very week when the world was commemorating the 50th anniversary of man’s first successful foray into the deep black, the landing of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle carrying on board Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who were part of the American crew that landed the ship on July 20, 1969. As is part of mankind’s history now, and obviously well-documented, Mr Armstrong was the first person to step on the lunar surface. Mr Aldrin following about 20 minutes later. (Russia, or the then Soviet Union, and several other countries, including the US and France, earlier tested space flight on primates, the first being Albert, a rhesus macaque, that lifted off in June 1948 for a 63-kilometre journey on a V-2 rocket with, sadly, asphyxiation ending his life during flight. By contrast, the Apollo mission took eight days.)

Fast forward from that momentous day to December 2018, and the space event of remarkable proportions was the landing on the Red Planet of the unmanned InSight spacecraft. It was an achievement historic enough to have some of the planet’s foremost engineers, scientists, and mathematicians actually dropping tears. The triumph here was having the craft touch down with Nasa people’s hands off the controls; entirely remote-controlled. This could only have been possible through the distillation of many lifetimes of work in relevant fields, micro and macro. (For the record, the InSight was the ninth successful landing on Mars, but the first automated mission to land on our neighbour since 2012.)

To go back to the idea of space being the final frontier, somewhere out there is a (hopefully shining still) Tesla Roadster, cherry-red, the Earth’s image reflected on the paint. Behind the wheels is seated a gloved mannequin, not entirely unlike David Bowie, with the song ‘Space oddity’ programmed to play on the sound system, and carrying a data storage unit that contains sci-fi works of the giant Isaac Asimov, and the Foundation trilogy. This was fired into orbit last year by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, judged the world’s most powerful rocket that fired off with its 27 engines from Cape Canaveral, the Nasa launch pad site from where Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar mission set off.

In a world so endlessly fascinating, and where there appears to be no ‘final frontier’ too far, the idealist or the dreamer must be forgiven for wondering how or why does mankind even have the appetite for war, or for argument over petty resources, and an affinity to be locked in a world that the human race itself is considered responsible for destroying. It was Carl Sagan who famously commented, “The Universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

The writer is a member of staff.


Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2019