SUPARCO: Dr Abdus Salam’s long forgotten dream

Published: April 3, 2013

SUPARCO has to take on a more active role and its vision of 2040 should really be the vision of 2020. PHOTO: FILE

In 1961, Dr Abdus Salam and late Pakistan Air Force (PAF) commodore WJM Turowicz were busy laying down the foundations of Pakistan’s space agency called Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Corporation (SUPARCO). Little did they know that 52 years later, the nation’s space agency would be lagging woefully behind times, renting foreign built satellites or else hitchhiking on foreign country’s rockets to launch indigenously built satellites (in a manner of speaking) into space.

The beginning of SUPARCO reflected the dreams and goals of its founders and the scientists involved. Frequent rocket tests, collaborations with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) regarding training of Pakistani rocket scientists and engineers, and with keen government interest in the field, one might have had guessed that within a decade or two we would be sending our own satellites into space using indigenously built rockets.

Sadly, the dreams of its founders were too good to be true.

Our ‘Islamic republic’ shunned Dr Salam and hence, collaborations with NASA stopped. The government lost interest and ever since that time SUPARCO seems to exist just because it has to, without any entrepreneurial zeal, devoid of innovation, lacking a clear-cut direction.

Currently, SUPARCO is undertaking programmes relating to communication satellites, remote sensing, geographic information systems and space studies. It provides services in land surveying, crop monitoring, vehicle tracking systems etc.

Also, in its Space Program 2040 – approved by ex-prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani – it plans on producing and launching its own satellites by the year 2040.

But is that it?

The services that SUPARCO provides are a staple in any standard space agency – there is nothing special about this. When right now, our neighbouring countries are sending probes to mars and beyond, achieving the ability to develop and launching satellites by 2040 is just not enough!

Without scientific advancement, a nation cannot hope to succeed. We have to realise that a well functioning space programme is crucial to the development of a nation. It should not be a side note in our national policies but it deserves our government’s critical attention.

Investing in space programmes not only advances our knowledge of the cosmos, but it also produces spinoff technologies that enormously contribute to the growth of an economy. From enriched baby food to solar panels used in homes, there have been many commercial spinoffs from the technologies that were originally intended to be used in space but ended up being used by the public.

Where would the IT industry have been if it were not for the computing advances made during Apollo missions is anybody’s guess. According to former NASA scientist, Scott Hubbard, for every dollar invested in NASA projects $7-8 worth of goods is produced in the industry!

Hence, dear readers, investing in space programmes creates thousands of jobs — jobs that are certainly not limited to engineering only but spill over to diverse fields, ranging from textile to psychiatry.

That is why SUPARCO now has to take on a more active role and its vision of 2040 should really be the vision of 2020.

It has to work on increasing coordination with schools, colleges and universities so that a crop of future engineers and scientists are motivated, and their skills honed. The government must pay more attention to SUPARCO regarding its developmental projects.

The shambles in which European and USA economies are in right now means that the stage for the next space race would be set in Asia, aided and abetted by Western companies who have the expertise but lack funding support from their respective governments. Indeed China and India are making significant progress in space exploration; the former is planning to send manned missions to the moon while the latter is sending a space probe to Mars by November.

The development of an ambitious space programme would not only benefit Pakistan in the military field, but will also create an air of innovation and ideas that will cross-pollinate many separate scientific and business disciplines.

Nevertheless, we face the daunting task of tackling our domestic terrorism and political issues in parallel to the development of a proper space programme and that requires not only a visionary leadership but also an army of entrepreneurs who are ready to propel us into the future. But, these entrepreneurs will only come about if the government and SUPARCO take steps in promoting space sciences to the general public, as Antoine St Exupery once said,

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.

This is not the time to lag behind. The next space race is ‘on’ in Asia and we have to be a part of it, otherwise we will be left far behind, even farther than we are right now.

Read more by Jamaluddin here or follow him on Twitter @einsjam



A student of Information Systems Management at Latrobe University, Melbourne. He tweets @Einsjam (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • SM

    I don’t mean to be condescending, but Mr. Hamza Tzortzis claim, and it appears to me it is widely believed, that all there is to know about science, physics, cosmos, dark matter, big bang theory, its all there in the Koran. Maybe someone can look it up and tell me why are Muslims or Islamic countries are not there on Mars already if they had all this knowledge for 1400 years? Also, can someone tell me what will be the next big scientific discovery to be made in science as I am sure Mr. Hamza Tzortzis will retroactively claim the Koran did had that knowledge too, therefore wont it be infinitely better if someone interpret it proactively for the sake of humanity and tell us beforehand? Recommend

  • Dhaka

    Our space program is more advanced than pakistan.Don’t get surprised in future, we launch pakistani satellites into space where pakistan do not have practically any space program even in future. Recommend

  • SRahman

    Without getting into the interpretation of Quranic versus related to the universe and its secrets, the Quran clearly tells us to “Tafaqor” (ponder/research/study…) on it. The irony is the state of Muslim Umma; a zero contribution in the scientific research from Muslim countries even after clear endorsement from the Quran. Unfortunately, the blend of “religion and state” has produced a society with big slogans and zero actions. The priorities are vague and role models are shunned. It is hard to nurture an intellectual brain where thoughts and expressions are restricted with so called religious, social and moral ‘ethics’; where you judge people not for their academic achievements but believes and ethnicity. No matter how much money we spend on these programs, until and unless we change our mindset, we cannot progress worldly or for that matter spiritually.
    Whereas Dr. Salam is concerned, he is gone – he does not need our appreciation or thankfulness. The question we should ask ourselves, do we need him? In my opinion, for an enlightened society, the answer would be YES and No for a prejudice society.Recommend

  • jamshed Kharian-pak

    Its good to speake about our eastren & northren neighbors there is also one on thé western side called Ir Iran They havé tremendos advance since 1979! Ir Iran’s plan is to Send à Maned Mission on thé Moon!Recommend

  • 3rdRockFromTheSun

    Religion is supposed to guide you on what is right or wrong – it cannot take the place of a science text book or even how to run an economy! When a person’s faith is given more importance than what he/she brings to the table – this is the end result! Recommend

  • mes

    According to former NASA scientist,
    Scott Hubbard, for every dollar
    invested in NASA projects $7-8 worth
    of goods is produced in the industry!

    there are many Pakistanis who question India’s space program, to all of them, the above quote should answer your question.Indian space program has paid rich dividends,but only a visionary will understand this,not those who talk about slums and toilets.

    That is why SUPARCO now has to take on
    a more active role and its vision of
    2040 should really be the vision of

    you want to build and launch satellites within just a span of 7 years? be realistic,we are talking about space technology

    This is not the time to lag behind.
    The next space race is ‘on’ in Asia
    and we have to be a part of it,
    otherwise we will be left far behind,
    even farther than we are right now.

    you are talking as if everyone has just started to run,the space programs of japan,china and India are decades old and are decades ahead.well, you are already lagging behind,and honestly, you will never be able to catch up with India’s space program.
    Japanese, Chinese,Indian,and south Korean space programs are the real stars of AsiaRecommend

  • Nasir

    SUPARCO’s sad condition is parallel to Pakistan’s condition. The founder of the both had very high aims and vision where to take them. Unfortunately, it died along with their deaths.

    Dr. Abdus Salam, although built International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) which he wanted to build in Pakistan but luckily for every Muslim scientist it was Italy where most third world countries scientist go and do research on various matters of Physics without being discriminated on the basis of religion, race and ethnicity.

    Truely, Dr. Abdus Salam was an Ahmadi Muslim who practiced true Islam. While in Pakistan, neither the politicians, nor the bureaucracy, including the “armed forces” had any vision or interest in the betterment of the country, hence Pakistan is suffering and SUPARCO is suffering!

    Solution: Take away bigotry your problems will be solved!Recommend

  • spider man

    I say brilliant stuff. People just don’t realize how crucial is the development of a proper space program for a prosperous Pakistan. Visionary leadership in this regards is definitely needed.Recommend

  • Dishoom

    Chances of a competitive Pakistani space program by 2060 are less than zero.Recommend

  • Faisal

    Well structured write up, written with passion. Inshallah Pakistan will become a space power, once we have sorted out our political issues. And I will disagree with some comments that religion is holding us back. No it isnt. Recommend

  • Islamic Jupiter

    Thankyou for such an informative and logical blog.Recommend

  • kray

    Did you hear the one about how Neil Armstrong heard Azan on the moon. The miracle is that moon has no air for sound to travel !!! Isn’t that amazing ?Recommend

  • Genius

    Well researched article. Kudos.Recommend

  • Concerned citizen

    Pakistan was one of the few countries of the world that got a head start early on, during 1960s, into Space program. Too bad, the subsequent governments did not follow on it, and left it to almost die off.

    @Dhaka, the poster Dhaka is a Indian or a Bengali Virus, infecting this web forum. Authorities not to ban him. He/She/It is always posting negative things about Pakistan, and is a big hater of Pakistanou do. Recommend

  • Gp65

    When Dr. Abdul’s Salaam has been forgotten, his grave desecrated, is it a surprise that his dream did not survive?


  • cornered tiger

    i believe that this nation has immense capabilities and resources to even land on Pluto. We just have to put our minds into it.Recommend

  • Oompa Loompa

    The problem is with our mindset. Pakistanis just dont have much appreciation of space sciences and the first obstacle is to create proper awareness in educational institutions.Recommend

  • Hoti

    It would be a wonderful sight to see a Pakistani space probe out there . sigh. For now we are stuck with Kite, Arrow and Lion :(Recommend

  • Abro

    An educated and insightful approach by the author on an issue that’s really big but is completely ignored by Pakistan.Recommend

  • tariq

    Abdus Salam was an american agent.Recommend

  • lio

    I think there is a main concern that why we didnt gave our attentions to that matter is that we do not have stable economy, once we do have solid economy of our country then in order to move ahead we have to initiate for the same, and we have to contribute I have to say that writer point out a very important thing for our country, because if we do not contribute we stay far behind, Sorry to say, but I want and I think every one want that we have to move forward and this is chance for all of us to contribute to do some thing in the world, to make our identity, to make ourselves a well known nation in the world, there are few people who thinks that Pakistan is nothing or Pakistan didnot contribute for the same, but let me tell you one thing very clearly do not make assumptions that Pakistan is nothing, sorry guys I think you didnt know that Pakistan is one the few countries of the world that initiates the space program in the mid 1960’s which create a lot of fanfare with the launching of two rockets (Rehbar I and II), this really cause india concerned because on that time india do not have space program, but I have to accept that now india is way ahead and trying to land a person on the moon plus have to mention one more country Iran way ahead from us, there are couple of thing which we must improve, should we not try out that where we went wrong? or was it is due to massive corruption that we lose the race?Recommend

  • Sanjay Bhattacharya

    Religion wil continue to hold you back ‘inshaallah’ Recommend

  • Atif

    As an ex-Suparco employee I believe that the organization is nothing but a white elephant for the nation who is suffering from energy crisis poverty at one hand and funding millions of $ on Satellite ? Strange policy of space program when your total development budget is 140 million US$. Recommend

  • Karachite

    I worked for SUPARCO and was shocked to have benn asked to sign a declaration of disbelief in Ahmadi faith before appointment. My signing day was my worst, since I looked up SUPARCO as a child of Dr. Abdus Salam and felt proud to join it while the child itself asked to shun its founder’s belief which should have been totally irrelevant. I soon quit out from the organization realising my perceptions of the organisation was so flawed and that it had become a dormant entity with nothing to achieve or to be proud of. All technologies were imported and the engineers mostly work to maintain, test, deploy the technology. No cutting edge research is taking place. Some departments (esp. in lahore), however, are working real hard and are catching up for the lost years which is a positive outlook. But, an overall lethargy assumes and no one seems motivated for research accross the board. Rather, the management is more focused on writing visions and creating discipline. The management should remove discriminatory policies against other beliefs and should focus on research with having confidence on Pakistani engineers, who certainly have more talent and skills than being approved of.Recommend

  • Dhaka

    Even somalia will launch satellite into space by 2040!!Recommend

  • Saladin

    @Atif: and that too on assembled satellites and rented rockets….corruption much ? Recommend

  • http://India vasan

    I think Pakistan should sort out the issue with the Kite flying Basant festival. Space programs are for India, Iran and the rest of the world. Recommend

  • Critical

    “According to former NASA scientist, Scott Hubbard, for every dollar invested in NASA projects $7-8 worth of goods is produced in the industry!”

    How sad is it that we’re looking at scientific research in a commercial lens???

    The day you start a research for ur commercial interest,your vision becomes limited.You will not venture into the darker areas of science fearing that it will not be of any economic significance…

    Take the example of Laser,when it was first theorized and then invented…When the invention came out,they remarked “A wonderful invention which needs a use”…but look at the current world,and see how many industries use laser…

    When NASA sent a man to moon,there were a whole generation of students who were inspired in studying space and engineering..They were assured that there is a place for them in the world to play.That indirectly led to the growth of economy of USA in the next 3 decades.The current generation are becoming slobs as they’re more interested in Justin Beiber,Kim Kardashian.

    Final word,In the Middle ages,when England was starving,they were building libraries and India was abundant in wealth,but their rulers were burning libraries..We all know what happened after that…Science is the only way forward,poverty is man made…We grow enough food to feed 8 million people but one third of the world goes hungry…So,stop underfunding the research institutes for the sake of relieving povertyRecommend

  • gp65

    @lio: “I think you didnt know that Pakistan is one the few countries of the world that initiates the space program in the mid 1960′s which create a lot of fanfare with the launching of two rockets (Rehbar I and II), this really cause india concerned because on that time india do not have space program”

    The Indian space program stared in 1962 by Vikram Sarabhai. It is inaccurate to say there was no Indian spaceprogram until mid 60s


  • Mohammed Abbasi

    We just need to follow them and we will all land on the Sun!Recommend

  • Adil

    Standing O for the writer’s effort. In any civilized country this would have been a major wake up call. But not here sadly. 99% of Pakistanis dont even know the concept of satellites. Very sad.Recommend

  • Reader

    I pray that the SUPARCO chief gets to read this blog. Very practical suggestions have been outlined here.Recommend

  • Saadia

    true, but do tell the whole truth as well. kindly inform us when was ISRO established and when was SUPARCO established. But of course you will gloss over that :)

  • gp65

    @Saadia: “@gp65:
    true, but do tell the whole truth as well. kindly inform us when was ISRO established and when was SUPARCO established. But of course you will gloss over that :)”

    There is nothing to gloss over. I was referring to a statement that India did not have a space program in the mid 60s and I pointed out inaccuracy of that statement since Vikram Sarabhai DID in fact start a space program in 1962. ISRO started in 1969 and I never said it existed in mid 60s because it was not relevant to the discussion. This isn’t about ISRO vs. SUPARCO. In fact the state pf Indian space program in mid 60s and Indian insecurity were unnecessarily and inaccurately dragged in. The focus ideally should have stayed on what can or should be done to refocus SUPARCO on its mission.

    @Critical: “India was abundant in wealth,but their rulers were burning libraries”

    Reference please?Recommend

  • Declan

    Very thought provoking and insightful blog. Excellent research.Recommend

  • mind control


    India was abundant in wealth,but their rulers were burning libraries

    Correction. Indians were building libraries. The burning was done by the same mob that later desecrated the grave of Dr Abdus Salam.

    Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by an army under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it,

  • Usman

    I am one of the students currently studying under the SUPARCO funded Space program in Pakistan as an undergraduate. The conditions of my department are absolutely shameful. Compared to other departments in the university, we are totally being neglected and the teaching staff are not good. We have only one qualified teacher, we do not have software licenses or any proper labs. We work on cracked softwares on our own laptops. The university is spending millions of rupees on gardeners and telephone bills, petrol and government owned vehicles. This is the state of the first ever space program of Pakistan. One of our GIS teachers did not even know where to locate Pakistan on the map. Can anyone believe that?. I was stunned. And the instituiton is being run by retied army officers. The thing I can say to the armed forces is to please not meddle in the affairs they cannot handle. Leave us alone, retire and play golf, thankyou.Recommend

  • mind control


    The thing I can say to the armed forces is to please not meddle in the affairs they cannot handle. Leave us alone, retire and play golf, thankyou

    Or, may be ‘Save Pakistan ‘ by contesting elections.Recommend

  • Usman

    @mind control:
    Save us?.
    The army has done nothing but destroy the country. It has been ruling Pakistan for the best part of sixty years, it is the reason institutions like SUPARCO have gone nowhere. Uneducated Generals cannot be administrators, okay?. How much more proof do you need?. Look at my university, look at Pakistan, look at the army’s agencies that fail again and again in security matters. I can go on and on dude. We need to let the democratic process grow, it is the only way to ‘Save Pakistan’.Recommend

  • KTShamim

    Dr Abdus Salam … founder of ICTP and long-forgotten hero of Pakistan, the country that sidelined their only Nobel Prize Winner.Recommend

  • Rex Minor


    And who are you that some one should look it up and tell you? The supremo? The knowledge emanates from the scriptures, the scientists research, analyse and establish theories and after clinical tests and trials develope a product. This is the task of generations who have the life span of infinite.

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    No one needs people who are no longer alive. They have done their part and others will do theirs. Dr Houdbhoy is the living particle man though retired now and is involved in politics and has conflict with theologists and religious scholars. He writes good articles on ET, but hardly on science. It is unfortunate that during his teaching career he did not identify a single student wothy fo Phd studies in science eiious schothose who have one but ufortunately he could not find a single student qualified for Phd studies? This is strange and unethical not to pass on ones knowledge to the next. I say this assuming that what I have read from couple of his former students is accurate.

    It is difficult for a student of science who does not understand arabic language nor the arabic culture which is a pre-requisite to decode the Quraanic suras in search of science and to follow the procedues to explore the galaxial world.

    Rex Minor

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    Follow your interests in science outside Pakistan starting in neigbouring countries. Remember, it was the German scientist who was taken as prisoner of war at the end of ww2 and later headed the USA moon landing venture.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • ibn arastoo

    You did not mention that SUPARCO was one of the top space program in the world when it was started.

    But no one wants to let a nation with radicals explore or go into space – they often ask what will the Muslims do in space ? more amputations? flogging? stoning? executions? genital mutilation of boys ?

    That is why Abdussalam was summarily removed, the Ahmedis were banned and Mr. T (the Polish observer) ensured that the program went nowhere. There was even a guy with a BS in an irrelevant area LEADING the space agency of the entire nation (unbelievable since even the low level workers at a space agency are all PHDs in aero astro and related fields).

    If you want to have a viable space program or a good country try to learn how China embraced modern values (threw away the old religion and the old ways) and then revolutionize your thoughts and your culture and outlook … Recommend

  • Rex Minor


    It was Fredric the great who made education compulsary fo Germans. And when told about the inadequete number of teachers in the country, he ordered that military junior officers be allocated to schools for teachng the children. Illetracy was elmiminated in the county and people were disciplined and sports became the popular subject schools.
    Pakistan could do the same with their large military who are certainly capabe of providing primary education to children, discipline and sports. This is what they regularly do with their recruits.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Usman

    @Rex Minor:
    Thank you for that suggestion, but I cannot bear to leave my country. It is my soul and blood, I will stay and try to make it better for the future generations. Although, many of my friends have followed your advice. They have abandoned their homeland, which is just sad.
    Also, your suggestion that the military be put to teach primary school children is very practical, and I will try to put forth the idea through the social media and my contacts to the concerned ears.Recommend

  • SRahman

    @Rex Minor:
    It is sad to know that Dr. Houdbhoy could not produce any PhD student. May be he was not a good teacher but his social contribution are commendable. I read somewhere that Dr. Salam was also not a good teacher. When he was professor at GC Lahore, student complained to the principal and consequently he was given the responsibility of a soccer coach. But again, I met an American professor who knew Dr. Salam and claimed that Dr. Salam produced more PhD students from the third world countries than anybody else. May be it is not the teacher but the students and the environment that effects the outcome. May be Dr. Houdbhoy had same dilemma.
    Actually, I just wanted to state that we should stop judging people because of their believes. That is between them and the Almighty and the He is a better judge than us. We should only judge someone from his achievements and contribution toward the betterment of fellow human beings. Recommend

  • Nadeem

    Only God can save SUPARCO from this shambolic situation.Recommend

  • ZeePak

    Love your blogs mr. JamalRecommend

  • cynacuse

    A highly engaging blog.Recommend

  • Asjad

    Who needs space machines? We need more atom bombs,we need more bullets,tanks, everything that protects us and yeah that includes Fauji Serial, Fauji Foods, Fauji Fertilizer,All the Askaris, Askari banks, Karachi ke bakra mandi and so on n so forth.Recommend