India is now only the fourth country in the world to successfully land on the moon. A few hours after the landing, a ramp lowered down and allowed a rover to wheel off on the lunar surface. All of this took place about 400,000 kilometres away from Earth. By any measure, this is an incredible achievement of engineering and science for our neighbour.
As expected, there have been different types of reactions in Pakistan. In the fastest jerking of the knee, some have declared the landing itself to be fake. Others have questioned the money spent on the space programme, insisting it should have instead been used to alleviate poverty in the country — although, it must be clarified, India’s space programme is astonishingly cheap.
But the most common reaction has been to ruefully reflect on the poor state of Pakistan’s own space agency, Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco). One of the more widely circulated memes in the aftermath of India’s moon landing compared the considerable scientific qualifications of the heads of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) with those of Suparco, which has been led by military personnel over the last two decades.
All of this becomes even more poignant due to the fact that Pakistan was an early participant in the space age. Suparco, founded in 1961 at the urging of the late Nobel laureate Professor Abdus Salam, was amongst the earliest space agencies in the world and had an active rocket programme in the 1960s.
Clearly, when it comes to space, things did not go well after that.
The success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission to the moon has forced many in Pakistan to look inwards and ask: why did Pakistan’s space programme fail to achieve the lofty ambitions that spurred its creation? And can we still breathe life into it?
Any conversation about Pakistan’s prospects in space justifiably leads to eye-rolls and jokes (some good ones too!). Space is not the only sector where Pakistan has seen a decline, and failures of state institutions are far too numerous to recount. Nevertheless, the reactions in Pakistan to Chandrayaan-3’s soft-landing on the moon shows that we do still care.