Pakistan on Thursday announced that it would be beginning a selection process early next year to send the first Pakistani into space in three years. Pakistan Minister for Science and Technology Chaudhry Fawad Hussain made the statement in a post on Twitter.
Hussain said that fifty people from across the country will be shortlisted for a space mission as part of an initial exercise beginning February 2020. Further evaluation will refine the pool of candidates to just twenty-five, with the aim of sending the first Pakistani into space by 2022. Hussain rightly termed the mission as the biggest space endeavor in the history of the country.
The decision to send an astronaut into space reflects the desire of the Pakistan government to modernize a fledgling space program in order to keep pace with the rapidly expanding space ambitions of archrival India. Islamabad has stepped up efforts in recent years to develop an aging satellite program and signed a series of space cooperation agreements with China.
And while Hussain’s claim of sending a Pakistani astronaut into space was met with ridicule by Indian news outlets, it can definitely happen with support from Pakistan’s “all-weather ally” China, which is a rising space power on its own.
Here’s How We Think Pakistan Can Send an Astronaut Into Space Come 2022
Space cooperation agreements with Beijing might hold the key to Islamabad sending a person into space by 2022. In October last year, Hussain told local media that Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), the national space agency of the country, had signed an agreement with a Chinese company in this regard.
Hussain’s reference to a “company”, as opposed to a governmental agency, indicates that a private Chinese space startup might be involved in training the Pakistani contingent shortlisted for astronaut training. Private space companies have become a billion-dollar industry in China and are rapidly catching up to their American peers like Elon Musk-owned SpaceX and Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin.
Pakistan’s possible decision to choose a foreign partner for astronaut training is a model also being used by emerging space power India. In June, New Delhi said that it will hire the services of Russian launch services provider Glavkosmos to select and train astronauts for a manned mission to space that the India Space Research Organization hopes to launch by 2022.
Pakistan and India lack the technical expertise and the state-of-the-art facilities required to train astronauts for missions into space. Foreign partners can help bridge this gap. As of July 2019, only China, Russia, and the United States have launched manned missions to the final frontier. Both Pakistan and India are, therefore, seeking assistance from established space powers.
Pakistan, however, depends on the Chinese to a much greater extent than the Indians do on space cooperation with Russia. The satellite program of Pakistan is not developed enough to meet the challenges that manned spaceflight offers. The Pakistani who will fly to space in 2022 will probably have to board a Chinese vessel and undertake a Chinese mission.
One of the possible missions on which the Chinese could take a Pakistani astronaut along is to the Tianhe Space Station, which China plans to put into orbit by 2022. Beijing recently announced partnerships with 17 different countries that will conduct experiments on board the space station. This cooperation could expand to include Pakistan as well.
Who Will Be Pakistan’s First Astronaut?
Hussain did not elaborate on the actual process through which the Pakistani astronauts will be selected for the space mission. This has led to questions about the criteria SUPARCO might set for the selection of Pakistani astronauts, and whether or not the application process would be open for everyone across the country.
A brief look at the requirements for being an astronaut, as defined by the National Space and Aeronautics Administration in the United States, could provide a helpful guideline. NASA astronauts hold at least a bachelor’s degree in one of either science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. So the first Pakistani into space might be a university graduate with a STEM degree.
NASA astronauts must also have three years of professional experience after their degree or 1,000 clocked hours as pilot-in-command in jet aircraft. This equips selected astronauts with the ability to understand the dynamics of flying and deal with challenging situations in space. If Pakistan sets the same criteria, an air force pilot might be the first Pakistani into space.
Although NASA does not officially set an age limit for applicants, it is generally assumed to be between 25-40 years of age. Both men and women can apply. The environment in space requires a fit individual who can cope with the physical and mental stress of surviving in extreme conditions. So the first Pakistani person into space would probably be an accomplished pilot with a STEM degree in the age range of 25-40.