Dr. Nozair Khawaja was born in Wazirabad and completed his Master’s degree in Space Sciences and Astronomy from the Punjab University, Lahore, and the University of Turku, Finland. Later on, he did Ph.D. in Geosciences from Heidelberg University, Germany. He also worked as a postdoc scholar at the Institute of Earth Sciences, Heidelberg University, and is currently working at Freie University, Berlin.
Dr. Khawaja did his research on life beyond Earth and continue to lead his cutting edge research work in association with several space exploration programs within our solar system. In 2019, he got a Group Achievement Award for Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
He is a recipient of the first prize of the Horneck-Brack Award, at the European Astrobiology Network Association in 2018. He has also received the Short Term Scientific Mission (STSM-2010) Grant from European Cooperation in Science and Technology, ECOST – action chemical cosmos. His work has appeared in highly cited peer review journals like Nature, Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, and Science. He is the founder of the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan (ABNP)-a volunteer network to promote astrobiology in Pakistan.
Here is the brief conversation of Dr. Khawaja with our EIC Saadeqa Khan on the situation in Germany and future of space exploration amid this global economic recession.
Saadeqa: The effects of the Coronavirus on social, moral, and ethical aspects of life will be ever-lasting. Before the virus outbreak, most of the nations were taking environmental threats for granted. As a planetary scientist, do consider the pandemic to be a curse or a blessing?
Dr. Khawaja: We know that in history, there were several episodes of epidemics that changed the course of history and Coronavirus in another of them. So, it has many aspects including ethical, religious, social etc.
You are right that the environmental impact of Coronavirus has overall not been taken seriously in all nations. Among those environmental threats, one was that, since we are not caring about the environment, we may disturb such ecosystems which can result in harm to humans all their lives on this planet. So if you see it from this view, I believe we have been punished for ignoring these environmental threats by mother Earth.
The pandemic is a curse from mother nature. With the advent of science and technology, we are capable of understanding different natural phenomena and have knowledge about different physical and biological processes. Despite that, we harmed the environment and did not care for its natural system. It is a blessing in the sense that now we are aware that one of the reasons for this pandemic is causing disturbance to some living being or some environmental conditions, and finally we will now focus and look into these environmental threats more seriously.
But if you’re talking in the sense that it is a blessing or curse from God, I would say it is difficult to guess. Our response to this situation is basically to get closer to Allah, to take care of people, and to keep a check on our morality. So it turns out to be a curse turning into a blessing!
In another way this epidemic could be a blessing for individuals and on a bigger societal level as well. People now understand that we should be thankful to mother nature as she provided us basic necessities: air to breathe, water to drink and much more for free. Another aspect is that people realized the importance of small things around them which they took for granted. One advantage of this pandemic is in the form of rebuilding and reconstructing of a global society with a sensible behavior towards mother Earth.
Saadeqa: Scientific communities and laypeople have long criticized astrobiology or search for extra-terrestrial life. What is your point of view on the current situation, whether spending trillions on space exploration missions would be a sound decision or not when people here on Earth are unemployed and starving to death?
Dr. Khawaja: Many people criticize that the search for extraterrestrial life is a waste of money when on Earth we face problems as dire as starvation, death, and lack of resources. So, why invest in an unseen object (alien life) of which we’re not even sure? Shouldn’t we invest on Earth, where people live?
This is a very valid question, but people ignore two facts here. If humans don’t change their outlook about the existing resources, then our future becomes difficult. It doesn’t matter how many trillions you invest on space exploration and ignoring poor conditions of people on Earth. The quality of life on Earth does not fully depend upon materialistic resources. Firstly, I ask you, how are we humans utilizing our existing resources? So many factors affect the usage e.g. political instability, difference in status and minds of people, discrimination between different sectors of the society etc. In Pakistan, a very backward mindset prevails in society. So, is the famine and lack of resources here because of the fact that the rest of the world is searching for life in space? Most certainly not!
In fact, problems are occurring due to unequal distribution of available resources to different components of the society. I think these issues are related to proactive planning as to how we manage our resources. There should be no objection on life exploration. As a human being, the basis of our mind’s evolution is curiosity. When we follow the few glimpses sparked up in our mind, we discover. These discoveries, in the end, are used for human benefaction.
People don’t understand whether finding alien life may have benefits or disadvantages in the long run. Nothing can be said about it at this point. A benefit is that we humans want to find out our own origin and what the future holds for us. If we find life elsewhere, we can ultimately understand our past and can predict our own future.
We can say that in a situation like COVID-19, we could shuffle the resources from one sector to another temporarily but to fully abandon one area of research for another task is not logical. The main thing is the allotment of resources that should be properly managed. The mirage of man is in his thoughts, working to make them better and to care for the people around us.
Saadeqa: Being a person with a diverse range of interests, I am a keen observer of the environment as well as the latest news in astrobiology. During the lockdown, I observed that Mother Earth is breathing with contentment. We human beings cannot manage without Nature, so, should saving Earth be our priority rather than further space exploration missions?
Dr. Khawaja: This question is somehow connected to the previous one. During this lockdown, Mother Earth is breathing through such components that, we feel, were not witnessed before. In the lockdown, there are indications that environmental conditions are improving because of the low emission of poisonous smoke from man-made utilities and decreasing trends in global warming in general. Definitely, Nature is prospering.
It is true that humans can’t live without Nature. To explore nature is in their blood, I would say. However, if affiliation with Earth is to the point of obsessiveness, it will create problems. Here, I want to direct your attention towards a deeper perception. I ask you to imagine that human beings are aliens on this planet. They came from another place. Why did they leave their place or planet? Maybe it was not suitable to live anymore, which resulted in the migration onto Earth.
Mother Earth regulates itself e.g. circulation of air according to temperature. Earth regulates its own processes, but there must be a threshold present that would have been reached by the previous planet where human beings lived before Earth. Mother Earth may reach its breakdown point. If we are not careful enough, these regulatory processes may lose some of their efficiency and as a result Earth is not anymore mother in its very nature.
What should humans do in that case? Simple: change their attitude. Or else look for a new home. This does not at all mean that they make it a trend; ruining their old home in anticipation of the next one. If humans care, this Mother Earth can regulate itself again.
Exploration is the name of a continuous process. We should allow the basic instinct of exploration to let us carry on this journey. Mother Nature has some ethics regarding the environment and these should be implemented to the maximum level possible in societies in order to minimize damage to the environment. Movements which support this cause should be immediately begun.
As an example, if you stop all space exploration and utilize all the resources on Earth, does that mean you would close factories, stop cars for reducing the dangerous gaseous emission and put a limit on technologies? No! it means that these resources will only be useful when our mindset changes. So, to shift resources from one department to another, it is only useful temporarily e.g. we have 20 trillion for space exploration. From that, if we take, say, 1 trillion and invest it in building schools and educational institutes under special circumstances, then that’s okay. But completely banning space exploration and thinking that we are on the road to betterment on the basis of the utilization of that money for some other purpose is not right. Rather, it is against human logic to completely ignore one aspect and put all effort into another. We need to improve the typical thinking habits and perspective of our society.
Saadeqa: To what extent has the pandemic affected future space exploration missions like Europa Clipper? How are your colleagues at NASA and ESA coordinating and corresponding with each other with no conferences and workshops happening?
Dr. Khawaja: Just like the other components of society, activities related to space exploration have also been affected, I think. Regarding on-going space missions, I believe mission-control at different space agencies is carried on as normal as possible because control rooms already have limited access, which should be absolutely fine according to the rules of social distancing. Furthermore, all these activities are tech-based, so most things can be done remotely.
A positive aspect is that people who have huge data from space missions accumulated now have surplus time to analyze it since no office timings are observed. They can concentrate on their ‘home office’, which is a normal trend in the West, with the whole setup easy to switch. Online meetings are attended and focus on data analysis in-depth is possible.
Another effect is in laboratories. They are closed all over Europe with the exception of bio-labs but now it is being thought to reopen and make them functional with a minimum of 1-2 people working at a time only. The pace of future space missions might be affected as well because private industrial sectors are normally involved heavily in such missions. Because of industries being dysfunctional at the moment, or, not fully operational, the preparation time of space missions could have lengthened.
There has been one major effect on the scientific culture, which is in-person meetings between experts on different scientific problems. This culture in the field of science is halted at the moment, which is normally done via conferences in order to communicate science. The commencement of new science culture through online conferences has already been in the process. As you would know there was one of the largest conferences on Geosciences in Europe in April that has to be canceled. Similarly, there were other big conferences planned in America. Abstracts had been submitted, schedules were finalized. But then the pandemic hit and now the situation is that whatever abstracts have been accepted, the organizers have settled the conference online.
They will invite the person online and he or she will make a chat room on the website and people can interact and ask questions over there. This is indeed a quick change of set up on behalf of conference organizers. I can envision that there will be no physical conference in the coming year but technology is already in action and I think virtual conferences will be the future of science. Here, I would like to mention that the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan (ABNP) under my leadership is also planning to organize a first international conference in Pakistan on the subject, and of course, that would be an online conference.
Saadeqa: Before the Coronavirus outbreak, the US was planning its back-to-the-moon mission, the Artemis. Do you think the US will be able to kick-start this mission now while it is going through a historic economic recession?
Dr. Khawaja: You are right, it is understandable that since we could have an economic recession and we are forcing an economic instability, and also the big powers are coming forward, a blame game will start as soon as this epidemic rise is flattened all over the world. This blame game between the powers may further disturb the future of humans on Earth.
In this situation, the US man-mission for space could also be affected. It will have to be seen to what extent it is affected in near future. In my point of view, it can’t be postponed on a long-term basis, but a new schedule could be given.
Anyone can easily foresee that the terms on which the man-made mission was already planned may possibly be a bit changed and extended. It is possible that space agencies prioritize space missions as soon as the situation of COVID-19 is settled. I hope you do know that planetary space missions normally require gravity assistance and multiple flybys of different bodies in the Solar System to reach the destination. This process ultimately needs a particular time frame to launch a planetary space mission and if we miss it, we may not get it again for the next many years. If for economic reasons, space exploration is disturbed, the man-made missions should be the first ones, in my point of view.
But I would like to direct your attention to another point here. Man-made space exploration may become more important because we may become more active and diligent in our search for a new home and there are definitely more chances of it. We should seriously think about not only the betterment of Earth but also where else human acceptability is possible. e.g. subsurface colonies on Mars. Another place could be Saturn’s moon Titan as well, which can provide perfect protection to humans from extreme radiations. So that’s why man-made missions and their importance will increase in this scenario.
Saadeqa: Germany and other European countries became the next epicenter of Coronavirus. How is the situation in Berlin and how long will it take to complete the lift-off of the lockdown?
Dr. Khawaja: Yes, definitely. Germany and other European countries have been the epicenter of this virus. The situation in Berlin compared to other cities and countries is similar in principle. When the German government did lockdown, a lot of the private sector had already shut down to a greater extent. Workers were asked to set up ‘home-offices’. People are obeying rules and regulations announced by the government. There are some irregularities, which are quite understandable as you can see in almost all societies. People here in Berlin are behaving sensibly as compared to people in Pakistan but you cannot find the ideal situation in the world. Being a scientist and academic, like many others in the state of Berlin, I stay at home because there is no way to take the courses in person at the university. However, everything is managed online now.
At the same time, I would say, the German nation is a very broad-minded and independent one, in matters of living, society, culture, etc. capturing that culture in homes is proving to be very challenging. So, in Berlin also, some people did not obey government instructions of lockdown. This disobedience was more in the beginning, but later the government pushed and emphasized them to be locked-down. People are now keeping social distancing very effectively, I would say.
When people go shopping, a line is maintained with 2m distance between two persons, which is quite commonly observed in Berlin. Only a particular number of customers are allowed inside at one time. Similarly, in schools of Berlin, work is being managed very effectively. Children are getting regular homework at home; schools have developed educational apps and give a lot of homework to make children busy.
Now, the government is slowly going towards lift-off, manually, though. For example, at the beginning of May businesses are being opened with strict rules and regulations. Schools are going to open in shifts. The public-private sector is putting a lot of money and effort into finding the cure of coronavirus. It is in the news here that companies started testing some cure on humans. I hope that all these efforts and care Berlin could go towards gradual lift-off.
Saadeqa: What were the reasons behind the massive death toll in European countries due to the Coronavirus? Do you think that Pakistan is dealing with this situation effectively or the situation could be worse in the coming weeks or months?
Dr. Khawaja: One apparent reason for the increased number of deaths in Europe is the accurate data collection in these developed countries as compared to Pakistan where diagnosing the cause of deaths and then tracking them to COVID-19 is very difficult due to the lack of resources.
Another reason for such a high death toll is due to the fact that Europeans and other developed countries, probably, underestimated the spread and severity of Coronavirus in the beginning when the epidemic was contained in China. Probably, they considered this epidemic as a local phenomenon.
As I have told you above that as free nations European countries did not do border control efficiently and also they did not implement social distancing in the early time of this problem. Probably, this is the biggest reason for the increase in the epidemic in these countries.
The question, whether Pakistan is handling the situation seriously has two aspects: First how is the matter handled by the government and second, how is the response of the society to those measures of the government. In my opinion, in such conditions as we observed in Germany, it would be necessary that both (the government & the society) should work together. Only then we can face the situation in a better way. In Berlin, the situation became under control because the government and society both are behaving sensibly and society (with some exception) is following the rules set by the government.
However, in Pakistan, there are many factors that make the lockdown relatively unsuccessful. For example the bad/poor economic condition and the religious discrimination are some of the reasons, which make government’s steps inefficient to tackle the situation. The lack of education and unemployment are also reasons which make COVID-19 issue as a serious threat in Pakistan.
Governments in developed countries, like Germany, announce billions of Euros as a relief package to its people and so far the situation is under control. In my opinion, the government in Pakistan is doing its utmost to tackle the situation and have announced a package for poor people so that they could stay in their houses during this lockdown. In this scenario, we cannot compare Pakistan with developing countries not only at the government level but also at a societal level. I think the Pakistani government is trying to do its best, in this poor economical condition, according to its capacity and economy, but the main concern is that the people of Pakistan are not taking appropriate steps. This may be problematic and prove to be worse for the coming months due to the attitude of the people.
The interview is compiled by Aniqa Mazhar, a team member of SCIENTIA PAKISTAN.
Saadeqa Khan is the founder, CEO, & Editor-in-Chief of Scientia Pakistan. She’s a member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (Second Cohort) and NASW. Saadeqa is a fellow of NPF Washington, The Falling Walls Foundation, and the Science Journalism Forum. Saadeqa has won several international journalism grants and awards for her reports.