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 and rivalry. But nothing inspires young inquisitive minds more than a paradigm-shifting breakthrough in the understanding of the Universe.
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. Kennedys 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 pilots 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.
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 publics 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, “Its an interesting place to be. I recommend it”.
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.
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.
Pakistans only Nobel laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, conceived the idea of the countrys 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 July 16, 1990, Pakistan launched its first experimental satellite BADR-1. It was Pakistans 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 Pakistans 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 countrys socio-economic uplift.