By Dr. Parandis Tajbaksh
Since the dawn of humanity, mankind has embarked on a journey of exploration. With the advances in technology, the dream of exploring remote landscapes became a reality and our sense of curiosity turned into the driving force to conquer space. The conquest of space is undoubtedly the pinnacle of human achievements. October 4th of 1957, saw the rise of Soviets as the first nation to launch a man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit around Earth. It took Americans more than a decade to boast their might, by landing the first humans on the moon in Apollo 11 mission. Since then, many countries have formally developed their own space exploration programs and of course muslim countries are no exception.
Muslim Space Technology in Conception
Many muslim countries such as Turkey, are conceiving of establishing national space programs. In July 2013, Turk officials endorsed the plans for the construction of
Turkey’s first ever satellite launching facilities, UFS, an ambitious plan, expected to give Turkey the capability of not only placing its own satellites into low orbits, but also to launch other countries satellites. Egyptians are a few steps further than Turks, in establishing a space program. In 2007, Egypt Sat-1, developed through the joint efforts of the Egyptian National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences, NARSS, and Ukrainian State Design Office, Yuzhnoe, was successfully launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Loss of contact with this satellite, however, called off further plans to launch Egypt Sat-2 in 2011. Only after further investigations, was this Russian-built satellite sent into orbit last April and is expected to be followed by, Desert Sat, in 2017. The launch of these satellites, however, is not free of controversy. Notwithstanding Medhat Mokhtar’s, the head of NARSS, emphasis on the non-military nature of the satellite in an interview with Al-Monitor, and describing its role in aiding with the development of the Suez Canal axis and monitoring the “water security of Egypt”, the Jerusalem Post published an interview with a research fellow at Tel Aviv University, who believed that Egypt’s space program is a spy one in science disguise.
Pakistan’s efforts in achieving space technology dates back to the beginning of the 60s, indebted to the recommendations of the noble laureate Abdus-Salam. In 1962, by launching Rehbar-I and Rehbar-II from the Sonmiani launch facility, located in the Balochistan province, roughly 145 km from the city of Karachi, Pakistan emerged as the first Muslim nation and the tenth in the world, to launch two-stage rockets. Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, SUPARCO, remained quite active and roughly 3 decades after the successful launch of Rehbar rockets, the first experimental Pakistani satellite, BADR-1, was placed in orbit, using Chinese Chang Zheng 2E space rocket. This was followed by BADR-B, another experimental satellite, launched into a sun-synchronous circular orbit, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. More recently, in 2011, the first Pakistani communication satellite, PAKSAT-1R, with a service life of 15 years, was developed and launched by the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC). SUPARCO also plays an active role in popularizing astronomy in Pakistan.
A glance at these space programs reveals, that Muslim countries are chiefly focused on launching satellites and benefiting from other pieces of space technology, rather than initiating scientific space research. This common interest in achieving space technology in service of developmental programs, has led to the establishment of the Inter-Islamic Network on Space Sciences and Technology, ISNET, which is a “non-political and non-profit agency” whose mission is to “promote space sciences, space technology and their applications for peaceful purposes in Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] member countries”. The appeal of space technology to Muslim nations is conspicuous in the current space projects of Saudi Arabia. Being the homeland of the first muslim astronaut, Sultan Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who flew aboard STS-51G Discovery in 1985, as a payload specialist to represent ARABSAT in utilizing ARABSAT-1B, the Saudi’s interest in space exploration barely goes past its technological merits. Saudi’s Space Research Institute, part of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, is primarily concerned with conducting “applied research…in order to transfer and localize related technologies and serve developmental plans in the Kingdom”.
Pioneers in Muslim Space Technology
Iran and United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, have space programs which go beyond benefiting technological merits and are targeted towards scientific exploration. The flashing news of the establishment of the UAE Space Agency was announced last July, followed by the UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, signing a law to inaugurate this organization. Even more captivating was the announcement of plans to send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021. The president of this 9-million nation said: “we aim for the UAE to be among the top countries in aerospace by 2021” , the government-owned daily newspaper, The National, quoted. With their success in launching satellites and occasional talks of the construction of a spaceport in Abu-Dhabi, UAE have felt the critical need for a space exploration program for the Muslim world in the 21st century and seeks precedence in this arena: “The UAE Mars probe represents the Islamic world’s entry into the era of space exploration. We will prove that we are capable of delivering new scientific contributions to humanity.” said Sheikh Khalifa. UAE’s total investment in space technology, excluding this historical project, exceeds AED20 billion ($5.45 billion). This can be compared to the annual budget of the European Space Agency ($5.3 billion), contributed by the 20 members states.
Neighbouring Iranians, on the other hand, have been recently very active in experimenting with sub-orbital rockets and claim, that they have successfully sent two monkeys into space and retrieved them safely.
Reminiscence of the Islamic Golden Age
The necessity of having a space program in order to remain competent in the universal scientific and technological arena, has motivated many Muslim nations, to establish space programs. The majority of such programs, however, are only funded by these countries and heavily rely on foreign expertise. Even though the introduction of such initiatives is commendable, the survival and prosperity of these space programs in the long run, requires the training and support of a new generation of indigenous experts. Moreover, to emerge as key role players in the sphere of space exploration, the goals of these space programs must go beyond building communication satellites, already designed in countries pioneering in this field. Innovation is the key to the survival in the competitive technological realm. In addition, mere interest in obtaining space technology in service of developmental programs, results in a lame space program, that can only stride if complemented by scientific exploration of this unexplored territory.
The future astronauts, trained in countries such as UAE or Iran, will follow in foot steps of a previous generation of a handful of Muslim astronauts, such as the Syrian Mohammad Ahmed Faris, the Afghan Abdul Ahad Momand and the Malaysian Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. Such success will undoubtedly remind the world of the Islamic golden age.
Dr. Parandis Tajbakhsh has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Toronto and a Master of Arts in Science and Technology Studies from the York University, Canada. She is interested in the relation between science and religion and in particular science and Islam. She is the author of the science2religion.com blog.