India is on the Moon, Where Does Pakistan Stand?

India is on the Moon, Where Does Pakistan Stand?
Image credits: SUPARCO/ISRO

India is on the Moon, Where does the Pakistan space program stand? India, on the one hand, has been able to launch over 60 satellites to date Pakistan on the other hand is only able to launch only 6 satellites.

India has become the first country to successfully land a spacecraft near the south pole of the moon. The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft touched down softly near the moon’s south pole today (Aug. 23), notching a huge milestone for the nation. India is now the fourth country to stick a lunar landing, after the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China.

India’s space program is thriving as one of the fastest-growing in the world. With a successful Mars, and Moon mission and various satellite launches in recent years, India is emerging as a new space power.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is now a go-to for countries like Germany, South Korea, Japan, and France seeking to launch and deploy their satellites into space.

Even companies like Google use ISRO rockets to launch their satellites. This will help India economically, giving it a foot in the door in a rapidly growing industry (Morgan Stanley projects that the space industry will go from being worth around $350 billion today to over $11 trillion by the 2040s).

The Rise and Fall of Pakistan’s Space Program

Pakistan’s space program, the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, commonly referred to as SUPARCO, predates the Indian space program by more than eight years – it was founded in 1961, while the ISRO launched in 1969. But today, SUPARCO lags behind on all the technological advances that have made the Indian program a potent force.

Initially established as a research committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Abdus Salam in 1961, SUPARCO’s assigned job was to devise strategies and conduct research for the peaceful application of space technology.

Pakistan’s space program got off to a terrific start. Being a collaborative partner with NASA and the U.S. Air Force, Pakistan launched its first rocket Rehbar-1 in June 1962 becoming the third state in Asia, after Japan and Israel to pull off such a feat. Given the context, this was by every measure a thumping achievement for the South Asian state.

Following the launch of Rehbar-1, satellite technology came to be the next realm for SUPARCO to explore. SUPARCO established its Remote Sensing Research Group. Deliberating on its research in this field, Pakistan established its indigenous National Remote Sensing Centre in 1980 which came to be known as ‘Resacent’.

Having a state-of-the-art lab for multi-purpose reading of visual and digital data, its main job was the interpretation of remotely sensed data. On 16th July 1990 Pakistan launched its first satellite, Badr I, in 1990 with Chinese assistance.

SUPARCO gradually devolved in the following decades as instead of advancing the cause of space research, it started making weaponized rockets.

During the 1990s, successive U.S. presidents placed SUPARCO under sanctions and warned European nations about alleged suspicious activities it was engaged in.

While George W. Bush relaxed the sanctions in order to woo Pakistan for the war on terror, their current status remains unclear.

SUPARCO is credited with the launch of Pakistan’s Haft-I, Shaheen-III, and Abdali-I missiles. In addition to these leaps in missile technology, SUPARCO also launched the Badr-B satellite in 2001.

The Pakistan Remote Sensing program has now replaced the Badr program, and Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite-I (PRSS-I), an optical and earth observation satellite, was launched into space from a Chinese facility in July 2018.

Although PRSS-I was procured from China, an indigenously developed satellite named Pakistan Technology Evaluation Satellite-IA was also launched aboard the same Chinese launch vehicle. PRSS-I will be used to provide remote sensing information to Belt and Road projects in the region, suggest media reports.

Also in 2018, SUPARCO bought a communication satellite from China already in orbit and named it PakSat Multi-Satellite. The satellite is expected to improve internet connectivity across Pakistan and give a boost to the lackluster communication networks in the remote northern areas of the country.

Reasons Pakistan’s Space Program is Lagging Behind

Today SUPARCO lags behind on all the technological advances that have made the Indian program a potent force. Due to a lack of resources, bureaucratic hurdles, and mismanagement, Pakistan’s space program, especially when it comes to commercial space exploration, has seen a considerable decline.

The number of military officials leading civilian institutions has dramatically increased since the 1999 General Pervez Musharraf military takeover in Pakistan. Before that Pakistani astrophysicist and scientist in the field of space technology with a Doctorate degree (PHD) used to lead the space program. Since 1999 a serving Major General ranked army officer from Pakistan Army Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers is leading SUPARCO who usually holds a Bachelor of Science degree in the field of Mechanical and Electrical engineering. There is no doubt about the discipline and professionalism of the Pakistan Army but the participation of the army in civil administration departments is resulting in the creation of an armed bureaucracy which is a major reason for the decline in commercial space exploration.

The Road Ahead for Pakistan’s Space Program

In 2011Pakistan’s National Command Authority met and laid down the Space Program 2040, which subsequently came to be known as the Space Vision 2047. Under this program, Pakistan plans to launch a total of six Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO) satellites and five (LEO) Low-Earth Orbit satellites.

 In 2014, Pakistan shifted from the American Global Positioning System (GPS) to China’s BeiDou, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

In the long term, a global navigation system will be a key area of focus for Pakistan’s space program. Navigation systems are of critical importance to modern world powers, as they not only serve vital communication and commercial purposes but also are the basis of location-guided missile technology.

More recently, Pakistan and China have signed agreements for cooperation in space technology. Under the terms of the agreement, the two nations pledged to conduct scientific and technological experiments in space, engage in astronaut training, and launch manned missions to the final frontier.

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