Farewell Space Shuttle Atlantis, thanks for the dreams

Published: July 8, 2011


The Space Shuttle Atlantis is about to embark on its final mission. The mission will bring to an end three decades of space travel, exploration, experimentation and innovation.

Space travel taps into one of the most basic and perhaps most valuable of human qualities, curiosity. For someone growing up in Pakistan during the 1990s, Space Shuttle launches in Florida were as distant as space itself.  They were brought a little bit closer by NTM when it first started broadcasting a few hours of CNN and BBC a day. One of my first experiences of following the 24 hour “Breaking News” was the Space Shuttle mission to repair the faulty solar panels and mirror on the Hubble Space telescope.

During the 1990s Jinnah Stadium Islamabad used to host a science and technology exhibition (though I can’t recall if that is what it was called) each year. It was amazing!

So many different stalls related to what was then cutting edge technology and discovery. I distinctly remember the SUPARCO stall which had a satellite developed by Pakistan, along with pictures of Pakistani indigenous space efforts and in cooperation with other countries.

There were also images, documents and findings of SUPARCO’s and National Institute of Oceanography’s Antarctic Research program. If I remember correctly there was an enthusiastic SUPARCO or NIO official giving a presentation on the setting up of the Jinnah Antarctic Station.

That was the key really. The enthusiasm of the officials manning these stalls was contagious, or at least I caught something.  Perhaps most importantly the exhibition was inclusive and accessible. They were children and young people there from different schools, colleges, universities and madrassas. I would imagine that a similar event today would be barricaded behind layers of security and at a much smaller scale.

Post 9/11 space exploration appeared to have fallen victim to the popular narrative happily perpetuated throughout the country. From Neil Armstrong hearing the azaan on the moon to members of the clergy declaring going into space un-Islamic because one would not be able to hear the azaan, science fact has been replaced by a cynical science fiction. Perhaps the most cynical politicisation of space travel was on the occasion of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster after which Saddam Hussain declared that this was a sign from God to the US people that they will be unsuccessful if America invaded Iraq.

Caught up in terrorism, economic problems and bouts of political instability in Pakistan, many would argue that we have neither the resources or time to focus on topics such as space exploration.

I believe that it is very important for us to make the time and divert some resources to inspire today’s children and young people. May it be space, earth sciences, oceanography or technology; we must offer children today a future of limitless possibilities, rather than one where mere survival is seen as a victory.  Not everyone becomes an astronaut or an astrophysicist, but exposure to events and occasions helps stimulate interest and inspire individuals.

The end of the Space Shuttle program is a great loss. Its demise brings an end to iconic images and global experiences that will sadly no longer spark curiosity or inspiration.

Let’s just hope that curiosity in everything beyond our atmosphere never diminishes. After all in the great nothingness of space, you and I are infinitely insignificant. Perhaps if we all began to appreciate how valuable, vulnerable and fragile our existence in the cosmos is, we would value each other and ourselves a little bit more.


Syed Nadir El Edroos

Nadir teaches Economics at Bellerbys College, London and is interested in Pakistani politics and current affairs. He tweets @needroos (twitter.com/needroos)

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

  • Sohaib

    A very refreshing read! :)Recommend

  • Waqar

    This is not nor will there ever be an end. Even though they Atlantis has been scrapped, sooner or later there will be something else to take its place. Recommend

  • Faria Syed

    The US space exploration program may have ended but the journey in to deep space will continue. Private companies like Richard Branson’s have already taken up where the government left off:http://tribune.com.pk/story/183864/a-star-is-launched/


  • yousaf

    the name of the auther has confused me a little I will be extremely sorry if he is not from Pkistan.such is the interest curiosity and love for knowledge needed by the youth so that pakistan makes her place in the group of respectable nations.research oriented knowledge and not degree oriented education is the need of the dayRecommend

  • Bilal Mirza

    The author rightly points out that science and technology were much more accessible to the youth back when we were kids in the 80s/90s. And that too in institutional helpings in the form of various exhibitions, shows and contests. I clearly remember participating in the Burraq programme during schooldays. Groups of kids from various schools of Pindi and Islamabad would sit for a daunting written test on astronomy, aviation, space travel and sciences conducted at the PAF premises on Mall Road, Rawalpindi. Lots of preparation and independent study would obviously go into it since the highest achievers were fully funded for a trip to a NASA or one of the Russian space programme facilities. A wonderful opportunity for any kid with an interest in the test subjects. Unfortunately, such platforms are almost unheard of in the Pakistan of today. Sincerely wish we can build towards a Pakistan where our kids have similar opportunities so we as a nation can at least begin competing globally in the sciences and technology.

    PS. love the Carl Sagan reference at the end. :)Recommend

  • Adnan

    Good one Nadir!Recommend