The history of the space program in Pakistan is essentially the history of one organization: the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission or SUPARCO. Founded by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Abdus Salam, SUPARCO was established in 1961 as the research wing of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC).
The long-term mission of the government agency included launching sounding rockets and satellites for communications, remote sensing, and scientific research purposes. SUPARCO quickly emerged from the shadows and became a fully-fledged organization in 1966, ready to fund research scholarships and build space sciences talent for the young country.
SUPARCO came into existence in the heyday of space as the Cold War accelerated advances in space technology. Space was a theater of contestation between the Soviet Union and the United States. The two superpowers competed for prestige and power in the scientific realm. SUPARCO could not realistically compete with the world’s superpowers, but it was able to benefit from the U.S.-Soviet rivalry.
Cooperation With the U.S. Gave Pakistan’s Space Program a Head Start
In 1961, SUPARCO dispatched four leading scientists to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA for training related to space science. According to a report in the Pakistani daily Dawn, NASA had offered countries of the Indian Ocean help to establish rocket ranges in order to obtain data on winds in the upper atmosphere of the Indian Ocean. The gathered figures would be shared with the U.S. agency in return for technical advice.
Former Pakistani President Ayub Khan, who was on a state visit to the United States at the time, jumped on the opportunity, inviting a senior engineer from SUPARCO to join him in a meeting with NASA officials, and finalized the formal agreement in this regard. In doing so, Pakistan became the first country from South Asia to partner with the United States on its space program.
The results were immediate, as Pakistan launched two rocket probes, codenamed Rehbar-I and Rehbar-II, the following year. These probes gathered meteorological data from and beyond the stratosphere (the second layer of our atmosphere), helping local scientists study weather patterns over the Arabian Sea.
With the launch of these two-stage sounding rockets, powered by solid propellants, Pakistan became the third country in Asia, and the tenth in the world, to have the capability to conduct such a landing. In addition, it was the first country in the developing world to have a rocket program for scientific purposes.
The design of these rockets was loosely based on the Nike-Cajun rockets of the United States, which had also carried sodium payloads and measured wind shear and wind velocities in the lower atmosphere. Rehbar-I, according to official accounts, carried eighty pounds of sodium and went up to 80 miles into the atmosphere.
Between September 1961, when the agreement with the United States was signed, to June 1962, when the first Rehbar rocket was launched, the Pakistanis had surpassed a significant technological barrier. Within a nine-month period, the team for the NASA program had been selected and completed training in the United States. The equipment and the instruments required for the launch had also been procured—since Pakistan did not have the manufacturing facilities to produce these locally at the time.
The Rehbar program lasted for almost a decade, with the last rocket of this series launched in 1972, codenamed Rehbar-24. During this time, SUPARCO launched almost 200 rockets. The experimental program also played a role in the development of the Pakistani missile program, as Rehbar-24 was based on the design of a NASA rocket with liquid propellants, a cheaper and relatively faster way to power launch vehicles.
Other probes, like the Rehnuma series and Judi-Dart (not to be confused with the U.S. series of the same name), were also based on American designs, mostly the Judi-Dart launch vehicles. One rocket from the Shahpar series was copied from the Dragon mission of the Americans. All the launches were carried out from Sonmiani Terminal, a space facility in the Balochistan province of the country.
The Sonmiani facility is still used today, and military organizations also carry out solid-fuel ballistic missile tests there. Four Hatf ballistic missiles have been tested in the area, and the facility now houses a rocket assembly workshop as well. Optical cameras and a solitary telescope procured by SUPARCO are kept on the premises too.
The 1980s and 1990s: Lost Decades for SUPARCO
Beset with leadership problems and a general lack of attention from power corridors, SUPARCO gradually devolved in the following decades. Instead of working toward its objectives, as defined by the mandate it had been provided with at its inception, SUPARCO became a vehicle for missile development.
Instead of advancing the cause of space research, it started making weaponized rockets. The manufacture of space shuttles was discarded in favor of missiles capable of targeting arch-rival New Delhi. The focus on the development of scientists and astronauts was shifted to strategic nuclear weapons.
The support staff was greatly increased, qualified individuals hired from all over the country to fill vacant chairs and infrastructure improved. Governments gave SUPARCO huge budgets to manage its staff, salaries and sprawling structures in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad, as well as under-the-table support for the covert missile program.
During the 1990s, successive U.S. presidents placed SUPARCO under sanctions and warned European nations about alleged suspicious activities it was engaged in. Hong Kong and Taiwan had also seized numerous shipments of solid-state missile propellants procured from North Korea and bound for Islamabad, routed through Chinese ports.
While George W. Bush relaxed the sanctions in order to woo Pakistan for the war on terror, their current status remains unclear. SUPARCO is credited with the launch of Pakistan’s Haft-I, Shaheen-III, and Abdali-I missiles.
Chinese to the Rescue? Modernizing an Aging Satellite Program
In addition to these leaps in missile technology, SUPARCO also launched the Badr “experimental satellite” in 1990. In 2001, another experiment, the Badr-B, made its way into space from a launchpad in Kazakhstan. Both satellites completed their designated lifespan in space, and the program was decommissioned in 2012.
Badr-I, the experimental satellite, weighed 115 lbs. and was equipped to meet telecommand needs. It was indigenously developed and launched into a low-earth orbit. Although the original plan was to launch the satellite from the United States, it was eventually launched aboard a Chinese launch vehicle.
The Pakistan Remote Sensing program has now replaced the Badr program, and Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite-I, an optical and earth observation satellite, was launched into space from a Chinese facility in July 2018. (Remote sensing is remotely gathered data, mostly from a satellite in space, for various applications, including land mapping, meteorology, and urban planning.) Work on two other satellites is also in the works, according to officials from SUPARCO.
Although PRSS-I was procured from China, an indigenously developed satellite named Pakistan Technology Evaluation Satellite-IA was also launched aboard the same Chinese launch vehicle. PRSS-I will be used to provide remote sensing information to Belt and Road projects in the region, suggest media reports.
Also in 2018, SUPARCO bought a communication satellite from China already in orbit and named it PakSat Multi-Satellite. The satellite is expected to improve internet connectivity across Pakistan and give a boost to the lackluster communication networks in the remote northern areas of the country.
The Road Ahead for Pakistan’s Space Program
In the long term, Pakistan aims to develop a global navigation system. For this purpose, PRSS-I acquired the services of China’s BeiDou navigation system in 2012. Navigation systems are of critical importance to modern world powers, as they not only serve vital communication and commercial purposes but also are the basis of location-guided missile technology.
More recently, Pakistan and China have signed agreements for cooperation in space technology. Under the terms of the agreement, the two nations pledged to conduct scientific and technological experiments in space, engage in astronaut training, and launch manned missions to the final frontier.