Reading stories on India’s orbiter-lander-rover mission, Chandrayaan-2, reminded me of the first scene of 1999 Hollywood movie October Sky. The scene shows the anxiety of Americans listening to news of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, the first man-made satellite launched into space to orbit the Earth. Sputnik was launched in 1957, a year before the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) was founded. Consequently, it was the Soviets that sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, to space in 1961. But the Soviets soon found out about the man on the Moon in 1969, orchestrated by Nasa, within just over 10 years of its inception.
Although Chandrayaan-2 didn't accomplish what it set out to, it was enough to make some of us anxious and triggered a national debate on Pakistan's space programme. While this in itself isn't a bad thing, what we need to do is evaluate the situation and act accordingly, taking slow and steady steps. We are not the Soviets nor the US of the post World War II era. Mere national pride is not enough to justify space exploration given its cost to a country struggling with its economy. Space exploration can only be justified if done for significant scientific advancements with national pride as a by-product.
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For example, scientists are looking into landing on the moon to split moon ice into oxygen for breathable air and hydrogen as a fuel for further exploration from there onward. If successful, the project will pave the way for new innovations in science and technology that will benefit the whole world. If we would like to launch a new space mission, it must advance science and be part of a project of national interest.
Recently, numerous achievements have been made in terms of space capabilities and thus high standards have been set to match. The image of a black hole at the heart of the magnificent spiral galaxy, NGC 3147, was captured by Nasa’s Hubble telescope and released a few months ago. The black hole is located approximately 130 million light years away from us, with one light year being equal to about six trillion miles. The image reveals information about the black hole, which contradicts our present theoretical understanding, and therefore it opens new avenues for us to further discover and explore our universe. Earlier this year, SpaceX performed its first trial of a commercial spacecraft, Dragon 2, capable of carrying a crew to space and back.
Space exploration, generally considered a slowly advancing field in terms of technological advancement, has come a long way since the first object was sent to space during World War II. And while the usual and politically correct justifications given for venturing into space include improving our understanding of the universe, finding new renewable resources, and among other things, studying potential extraterrestrial risks to our world, the fact remains that the first object to cross the Kármán line (the imaginary line between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space) was a guided German ballistic V-2 missile used in World War II.
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It was the era of glorifying one’s military strength to get ahead of the opponent, and it was again this military power play and national pride that resulted in the so-called 'space race' between the Soviets and the United States post-World War II. So space exploration was to a large extent triggered by national pride. However, since then, the potential benefits of these missions to humanity have arguably become much greater.
Space science is interdisciplinary in nature, and lies at the interface between engineering and the sciences. A prerequisite to a successful space exploration mission is on-ground technological advancement and an adequate research infrastructure in almost all fields of engineering and science. Our academic institutions and research organisations ought to be better supported to perform high-quality space-based research in collaboration with leading international research organisations to devise novel scientific projects assisted by internal and external partners.
Whether it is on-ground or space-based research, partnership with external leaders is critical as the research environment for sciences and engineering in Pakistan is far from being ideal. It needs improvement in terms of quality so that the research plays a role in solving real world/space problems and is also regarded useful when viewed by peers internationally.
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Absence of a long-term research programme, lack of funds for research calls on diverse topics, lack of research components in our STEM education and training curriculum and a far too large gap between the academia and the industry are some of the very visible reasons for inadequacies when it comes to active research programmes in Pakistan.
The first thing that we need to do is to strongly inculcate and promote a culture of research. This requires an active approach of enlisting academic institutions, research organisations, industries, as well as overseas Pakistanis who are experts in their fields.
Developing and cultivating an atmosphere of research and innovation will help in producing and maintaining high-quality research which will ultimately help to attain an appraisable presence in the international scientific and technological community.
It is only after achieving these fundamentals that we will be able to meaningfully look at challenges persisting humanity in space via any missions that we ultimately undertake, helping us achieve our goal of advancing science and along with that making us proud as a nation of what we have accomplished.
Dr Yarjan Abdul Samad is a Senior Research Scientist and Teaching Fellow at the University of Cambridge who works with space-based technologies.