Shadow of the moon

Published May 13, 2024
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst

THANKS to my seven-year-old child, I have a newfound interest in space technology. We followed the Chang’e-6 mission and enjoyed seeing images of the moon transmitted by Pakistan’s first lunar satellite. This is a promising development months after Pakistan launched its first National Space Policy in December. But can we keep up the momentum?

For years, I was a space sceptic, frustrated that developing countries would expend precious resources on space programmes when citizens’ basic needs were barely being met. But times and tech have changed; space technologies are now key to public welfare. Pakistan’s renewed push to manufacture and deploy domestic satellites is timely and strategic. Consider me a space convert!

The launch of our space policy emphasised the need for resilient telecommunications and cybersecurity. But satellite technologies offer so many other advantages for developing countries. A 2020 report by London Economics highlighted that space technologies offer cheaper options for critical data collection required to boost economies and save the environment. Space solutions are now central to managing food security, predicting climate risks, monitoring forest resources and disaster preparedness.

Developing countries are using their satellites to track the spread of water-borne diseases and inform irrigation approaches in water-scare regions, as well as urban planning. Real-time satellite data transfers underpin advances in telehealth, rural banking, and virtual education. To be truly inclusive, economies and societies must now look to the stars.

Pakistan’s space policy must go further in articulating priorities.

Pakistan already uses international satellites for storm tracking and agricultural planning, but given how climate-vulnerable it is, we must invest in domestic space infrastructure to take full advantage of the myriad uses of satellite technology at lower cost. But to do this, we have to get our programme right.

Writing for Chatham House in 2022, Val Munsami, a former CEO of the South African National Space Agency, argued that for a developing country to make the most of a space programme, it needed to consider four elements: availability of human capital, an industrial base to capitalise on the sector’s commercial potential, presence of technological infrastructure, and an appetite for international cooperation. Viewed from this angle, our space ambitions seem precarious.

The biggest risk is the paucity of STEM education. Home-grown images of the dark side of the moon and talk of sending the first Pakistani citizen into space can inspire a generation of scientists to drive a domestic space programme, but only if there exists an appropriate pedagogical culture that values scientific curiosity and a robust educational sector. This we sadly lack. While the space policy acknowledges this gap, hopes to improve the quality and reach of STEM education in Pakistan remain slim.

One argument for developing countries investing in space infrastructure is that the sector can attract FDI, create new industries, and motivate manufacturing facilities to upgrade and update. This is only true if a country can strike the right balance between investing in indigenous infrastructure and the cost efficiencies of importing increasingly cheap satellites. The continued lack of funding for our space programme (compare Suparco’s $26 million budget for 2023 with the Indian space agency’s $1.5 billion) means the likelihood of getting this balance wrong is high.

Another risk is that the programme becomes highly securitised, with cybersecurity, counter-espionage, surveillance and space defence bec­o­­ming priorities over the need to collect data to inform sustainable policy pla­nning. Intentions ma­­­tter, and Pakis­tan should learn from the Philip­pin­­es, which launched a space programme driven by a desire for disaster preparedness after experiencing Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The space policy must go further in terms of articulating priorities that put the Pakistanis and basic service delivery and sustenance first.

Finally, Pakistan should not miss out on the opportunities for Global South collaboration that space offers. While superpowers continue to lead the space race, developing countries are playing an impressive game of catch-up. The African Union, for example, has ranked its space strategy as one of 15 key programmes in its Agenda 2063, and more than 20 national space institutions have been established across the continent in recent years.

Global South space programmes are focused on tech that can support inclusive telecommunications and climate risk management, issues key to Pakistan’s success. We should be careful not to put all our satellites in one (Chinese) basket, and instead ensure that the space collaboration is diversified as part of holistic foreign and economic development policies.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2024

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