On August 23rd, India’s Chandrayaan-3 rover successfully landed on the Moon’s south pole. India’s achievement was lauded across the world, including in Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistani netizens also drew comparisons between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), lamenting the lack of tangible achievements by Pakistan’s space agency in recent years. Much of the criticism in this regard was directed towards Pakistan’s military, which has, for the best part of over two decades, retained control over SUPARCO by appointing serving military officers as the head of the institution. While some of this criticism can be attributed to the ongoing political situation in the country, it would be unfair to label it as being completely politically motivated and devoid of any merit.
To understand this further, let us compare the leadership history of SUPARCO and ISRO. Pakistan’s Space program was initiated in 1961 under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam. From Salam’s departure in 1967 to the end of Dr Abdul Majid’s tenure in 2001, SUPARCO was under the leadership of highly qualified individuals, each with advanced qualifications or a history of working in the field of science and technology. The situation changed in 2001 when General Pervez Musharraf handed over SUPARCO’s control to Major General Raza Hussain – a simple graduate of the Army Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Since his departure in 2010, all subsequent SUPARCO Chairmen have been serving Major Generals of the Pakistan Army. Furthermore, all of them were graduates of either the Army Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers or the Corps of Signal Engineering, and only one held a Master of Science degree.
What, then, does the situation look like in India? Since ISRO’s inception in 1969, none of its Chairmen have belonged to the military, and all except three had completed a Doctorate in their respective fields. Moreover, even those without Doctorates had a long history of association with India’s space program. Consider ISRO’s current Chairman Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, the man who oversaw the Chandrayaan-3 landing, as an example. Despite not holding a Doctorate, he has been associated with India’s Space Program ever since he joined the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in1985.
This comparison does not mean that one should place all of SUPARCO’s recent shortcomings at the feet of the Generals who have headed the organisation in the past twenty years, as doing so would be an oversimplification of the issues that have plagued the organisation. Over the years, SUPARCO has suffered from inadequate funding and the diversion of resources and personnel to other programs. The most notable example in this regard was Pakistan’s “eating grass” moment when most, if not all, of Pakistan’s highly qualified scientists were transferred to Pakistan’s Nuclear program. None of this, however, is to take the focus away from the overt militarisation of SUPARCO and the field of science in general in Pakistan. Space exploration is the epitome of scientific imagination, and handing the reins of the institute to individuals without significant R&D experience is not a recipe for success. Such an individual might be able to come up with solutions to technical battlefield challenges but would not necessarily have the capacity, the skill set or the imagination to bring about change and innovation at what should be one of the country’s leading science facilities.
Earlier, I highlighted how ISRO has always been headed by highly qualified individuals with vast experience in India’s space program. However, the most significant credit to the Indian space program and India’s advancements in science and technology in general is that all of their Chairmen since 1984 completed their most advanced degrees at Indian Institutions. In comparison, all of SUPARCO’s civilian chairmen, starting from Dr. Abdul Salam in 1961 and culminating with Dr. Abdul Majid in 2001, completed their doctorates at foreign universities. While this in itself is not an issue, the fact that Pakistani institutes of higher education do not seem to have the capacity to train the best scientists and engineers is a significant cause for concern. Then again, for all we know, such scientists and engineers are being trained but are unable to lead innovation since the top post always goes to someone from the military.
Ever since the Chandrayaan-3 rover landed on the Moon, many have argued that Pakistan should also allocate adequate resources and appoint the right personnel to ensure it isn’t left behind in the space race. However, I don’t believe that is a viable or appropriate objective. At the moment, the goal for Pakistan should be to channel all its resources and energies into creating an economically viable and politically stable society. Furthermore, it should promote an overall culture of science and innovation, free from excessive bureaucratic oversight and military control. Only in such an environment can institutes like SUPRACO prosper and achieve their objectives.
And finally, what should be the long-term objective for SUPRACO? Even if SUPARCO were to be headed by the best minds in Pakistan, the end goal should not be to match India or other regional countries in spacefaring achievements. After all, many of these activities are undertaken for national prestige or staking a claim for regional or international leadership. Instead, SUPARCO’s resources should be allocated towards meeting Pakistan’s unique space-related challenges and requirements. And if someday, these requirements necessitate a mission deep into outer space or a landing on the Moon, only then should Pakistan undertake such an endeavour.