Venturing into the 60s and the current status of space research in Pakistan with Dr. Tariq Mustafa

The world looked at us as a role model; Pakistan’s GDP was growing, then, unfortunately, with the 71 happenings in East Pakistan, etc., the growth rate went down. So many factors are responsible, but primarily, I think what is in our control is our leadership. And that is where we have not been able to do a good job.

Pakistan entered the Space Age, ahead of all Islamic, in fact, all developing countries, on 7th June 1962 with a bang, when its first two-stage rocket named REHBAR –1 lit up the night sky over the Baluchistan Coast rising up to a height of 80 miles, releasing an Orange coloured trail of sodium vapour lit up by the rays of the setting sun which could be seen from Karachi and hundreds of miles along the coast of Pakistan.

Below is a detailed conversation of Dr. Tariq Mustafa team leader of the Rehbar-One launch project with our team members, Saadeqa Khan and Maham Maqsood.

Scientia: Let us know about the details of how did you and Dr. Salam get in touch with the officials at NASA?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: In mid-September 1961, I was posted at the US Atomic Energy Commission Laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as a USAID fellow from Pakistan. I had joined Oak Ridge in Jan 1960 for a two-year fellowship and after completing about 21 months.

In the middle of July 1961, I received a call from Washington DC, the person at the other end identifying himself as no other than Prof Abdus Salam said “Look Tariq it might come as a surprise but you have to come to Washington earliest and join me tomorrow morning in an important meeting”.

He made it clear that he did not care how I get there, whether by running or hitchhiking, but I better get there soon. So next morning at 10 am, I joined Prof Salam and we found ourselves going into the spanking new Headquarters of NASA the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Agency of America.

Our meeting was with a dynamic young Director of International Relations Mr. Arnold Frutkin who told Professor Abdus Salam that luckily for us, you are accompanying President Ayub Khan who was on an official visit to the USA. And President Kennedy of the US had, a short time before, announced that he was committing the US to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the decade of 60s was out by the end of 1969.

NASA was directed to complete this program and they had already started in real earnest. Mr. Frutkin explained that this was a program that would encompass the whole of the earth because their rockets will have to be placed in Earth orbit before being propelled towards the moon and this required knowledge of the properties of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, particularly the wind speeds and directions at the higher levels.

NASA scientists have found that the area around the Indian Ocean was a “black hole” since practically no data was available on the upper atmosphere in this entire region and this was crucial for this program.

We were told that NASA invited selected countries of the region to set up rocket ranges and carry out scientific experiments. US side offered to supply free launching equipment and rockets in lieu of sharing raw data obtained from the experiments.

(L-R): AZ Farooqui (Communication), Rehmatullah (Meteorology), Dr. Tariq Mustafa (Team Leader), Salim Mehmud (Electronics), Sikander Zaman (Engineering) standing in front of the Rehbar-II rocket. Credits: Dr. Mustafa
(L-R): AZ Farooqui (Communication), Rehmatullah (Meteorology), Dr. Tariq Mustafa (Team Leader), Salim Mehmud (Electronics), Sikander Zaman (Engineering) standing in front of the Rehbar-II rocket. Credits: Dr. Mustafa

Prof Salam looked at me and said in Punjabi, his favorite language “Tariq, Tera ki khayal ai” (Tariq, what do you think?) I replied to him in Punjabi “kay ye to jee Hamara khawab pura ho jai ga” (That this will amount to our dream coming true). Mr. Frutkin who was watching intently, caught on to it at once and said, “from his face, it appears the young man is quite keen, am I right?” and Prof Salam nodded and Frutkin said that in that case, we need not lose any time.

I was put on a NASA flight, the same afternoon, to visit their Wallops Island Range where I was briefed about the launch equipment, rockets, and whatever else needed for the experimentation.

Scientia: Would you like to brief us about the proceedings that led to the historic launch of Rehbar-1 in a mere period of nine months?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: It is a source of great satisfaction, nay pride, that Pakistan not only kept this momentum but in fact totally surprised the U.S. side by completing the project in 9 months and launching the Sodium Trail experiments in June’ 62, ahead of all developing countries.

Our first challenge was forming a dedicated team. We put together a small and hard-hitting team which included Salim Mehmud, a specialist in electronics and instrumentation.

We got two new members from PAEC Karachi, one was Mr. A. Z. Farooqui a retd Flight Lt. of the Pakistan Air Force, to cover the communications side, and Sikandar Zaman a young promising mechanical engineer for the rocket assembly and launch operations. And a fifth member was an experienced meteorologist Mr. Rehmatullah, a Deputy Director in the Department of Meteorology who was to cover the scientific side.

Our team was selected and assembled at Wallops within weeks and started their work in earnest, where we went through intensive training and learning and Pakistan end in Karachi where plans were developed for the design and layout of the Rocket Range and its infrastructure and buildings.

NASA people told us that the launcher and the rockets were based on the Nike Ajax anti-aircraft weapon system and that we were allowed to take the Nike Booster Rocket from that system along with some of the control instrumentation.

Scientia: Let us know the details of the Sodium vapour experiment being done with the launch of Rehbar-One launch?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: Concerning the scientific experiment, it was mutually decided that the first experiment would be the Sodium Vapour Trail experiment.

It consisted of a container of sodium which was ignited a few minutes after rocket launch when the rocket had climbed up to a height of about 50 km and then it discharged a Sodium Vapour trail from a height of 50 miles up to its apogee of 80 miles or so. This sodium trail was launched precisely at a calculated time after sunset when the sun had set on the earth at Sonmaini, but the sun was still shining between the heights of 50 to 80 miles.

The Sodium vapour would be lit up like a bright yellow trail which would then be blown about by the upper atmospheric winds and it would form a pattern in the sky and by photographing and analyzing that pattern we could work back and determine what the wind structure at that height was.

It was the combined analysis of the synoptic imagery- that means simultaneous photographs taken from the three sites would give us the wind shear and the wind speeds, which was the data we were looking for through this experiment.

Tariq Mustafa presiding over the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Pacific centre for Technology Transfer (APCTT) at Bangkok- circa 1992 - Space
Tariq Mustafa presiding over the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Pacific center for Technology Transfer (APCTT) at Bangkok- c.1992. Credits: Dr. Mustafa

We asked Pakistan Air Force for support in aerial photography. The same cameras they used for air to ground photography would be used from the ground up. We provided radio means of communications from the Sonmiani launchpad control room to each of these photography stations that were spread far away at a 100 miles distance from Bholari and Uthal to different areas around Sonmiani. They were all connected through radio communications.

Scientia: Tell us about the Hurdle you and your team faced while working in scorching and humid weather of Baluchistan with mere living facilities?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: No doubt, there were difficulties. But the choice of Balochistan was simple. The rocket range had to be on the coast. Because you fire the rockets into the sea and it cannot be done in a populated area or on land. Secondly, in the very meetings in Washington, interestingly, it was president Ayub who casually remarked that if you have to select the range, in on the coast and Balochistan, then you can have it at Sonmiani where the army already has an artillery range. That cue was very good for us.

Firstly, it meant permission from the army, which normally takes time. And, for other locations, we would have had to survey the whole coast and spend time, effort, and energy. So, the availability of the Sonmiani artillery rage was a boom for us. If that were not available, then I don’t think that we could have finished the project in nine months.

The basic infrastructure was available. But the weather conditions cannot be changed. We knew the monsoons come in early June, and the NASA Apollo program very much wanted that this data should become available as early as possible.

Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission provided all the resources at that time. SUPARCO did not exist in 1961. Had the commission or NASA’s support not been there all this would not have been possible.

The buildings were constructed by MES, but all the installations, the rocket fixture, the launchers, the power supplies, had to be created by us. And this team had to work day and night to meet the deadline.

We would get up at Fajar (early morning), go down to the range area, do the work up to about 12 o’clock. And then we would break off, come back to the army range, where we have been given accommodation and had lunch and a siesta. But then go back around four o’clock, and then continue working till required.

So, if Bezos wants to do it and has the resources; go ahead. But for a country like Pakistan, I would certainly think that this would be extravagant and not recommended. If any Pakistani has the resources and buy a ticket; best of luck to him. But that is not a matter for the state to decide.

Sometimes it was 12 o’clock at night. There was a deadline but people were motivated. And that’s how it came to be.

Scientia: Given that SUPARCO was established way before ISRO, why do you think we lagged behind? What could we have done to improve our position in the race for space or even in the development of technologies?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: The answer is simple enough. India is a large country, seven times our population and with more than 10 times our economic resources. They want a certain image, and they have provided the matching resources to ISRO. Pakistan, on the other hand, couldn’t spare any finances for space like that. Earlier, we luckily got the support of NASA and jumped on that opportunity. Otherwise, I doubt whether Pakistan independently would have had much of a space program.

So, we have to work within our resources. And there it is best to go in for projects and programs, which give you some developmental dividends, such for Communications, Navigation, Meteorology, Agriculture, Planning, etc. Otherwise going for the moon or Mars does not give you any short-term economic benefits. Pakistan can ill afford that. I think, with its limited resources, it is best for Pakistan to concentrate on applications and not on showy projects.

Tariq Mustafa at the first post graduate International Reactor School of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, near Oxford- 1957
Dr. Tariq Mustafa (seated at the front) at the first post-graduate International Reactor School of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, near Oxford- 1957. Credits: Dr. Mustafa

Scientia: These days there has been this buzz around the space tourism industry. Do you think that this should have some solid objectives, rather than just getting the status of having visited the space?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: All that is a matter of resources. As I’ve already stated, in my opinion, state resources should go towards development-oriented projects. Now, as far as the private sector is concerned, they are free. If somebody wants to invest in tourism; why not?

So, if Bezos wants to do it and has the resources; go ahead. But for a country like Pakistan, I would certainly think that this would be extravagant and not recommended. If any Pakistani has the resources and buy a ticket; best of luck to him. But that is not a matter for the state to decide.

I remember there were these massive processions coming out of Mochi Gate every Friday. And I would join them regularly. That was the spirit of the day. It is unfortunate that that spirit has been allowed to dissipate.

Scientia: SUPARCO is working on rocket technologies as we see in the news but what do you think of its current and whether we should work on other defense technologies, rather than just the rockets or radars, etc. What else should we be focusing on to improve our defense system?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: That is for the defense establishment to spell out. As far as SUPARCO’s role is concerned, they are supportive of the rocket part. And as far as I know, I think that cooperation is pretty good. The results speak for themselves. In fact, Pakistan has done remarkably. The world recognizes that Pakistan today, in response to the Indian provocations, has been able to match on the nuclear side, and we can no longer be blackmail. We can deter nuclear aggression.

If Pakistan had not developed its new capabilities, I think the pressure on us by our unfriendly neighbors would have been far stronger. In fact, one wishes that Pakistan would have done equally well, on the civilian developmental side.

Scientia: Speaking of SUPARCO and the work you did before, we see that the team was very dedicated and hard-working. Do you think that we can have individuals in this generation and era, who have the same enthusiasm to work for the country as you and your team did back in the 1960s?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: I see no reason why the younger generation should not be equally keen. Yes, it is true that in our days, at least I was a product of the creation of Pakistan’s days. Born in the 30s, I remember I was 13 years old when Pakistan came into existence. I was in Lahore. And I remember there were these massive processions coming out of Mochi Gate every Friday. And I would join them regularly. That was the spirit of the day. It is unfortunate that that spirit has been allowed to dissipate.

But in principle, I see no reason why the younger generation of today should not be equally enthusiastic. It boils down probably to leadership. I think, with great good leadership, there is no reason that the youth of today cannot produce similar results. And from what we see, at least on the strategic side, we have done pretty well. I repeat on the industrial development of the country, we’ve not been able to do so well. Pakistan through the 60s was doing extremely well.

The world looked at us as a role model; Pakistan’s GDP was growing, then, unfortunately, with the 71 happenings in East Pakistan, etc., the growth rate went down. So many factors are responsible, but primarily, I think what is in our control is our leadership. And that is where we have not been able to do a good job.

Scientia: Some prominent universities of Pakistan providing space science education. Still, the practical work is restricted due to our decade-old educational system and mere research facilities. This is why our passionate youth moves abroad. How can we effectively deal with this situation?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: If there is developmental activity within the country, there will be room for jobs and need for specialists, etc. Having said that, I personally don’t see any harm in people going abroad if they do not find opportunities at home.

I think sometimes we don’t give due credit to our expatriate community. Without their input, Pakistan would have been in a worse condition. So, thinking that there is brain drain is a disadvantage. But it is true that we want development at home. And for that, there is a need for strengthening the research institutions.

The tradition of research is weak in Pakistan and has been weak for centuries in this region of the world. We need to find a solution to that. That is a challenge, again, for leadership. But again, I repeat, I think if we can, we should produce as many specialists as possible, preferably suited to first to meet our own requirements.

Scientia: In the 1960s, there was a lot of collaboration and scientists were very keen on working with each other. Unfortunately, we don’t see it a lot these days. Why aren’t we collaborating with those who are already established and have the resources?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: In principle, I see no reason and I’m sure cooperation is taking place with the countries abroad. But that is also tied up with the political situation. Remember, there was cooperation from NASA, and without NASA’s help, I am the first one to acknowledge that I don’t think Pakistan would have even entered this field.

But that was because it suited NASA. It was no favor to Pakistan; they did for their Apollo program. Let’s be clear on that. It was of mutual benefit. You see, they think that now we have, and I suppose to some extent it is true, given first priority to a strategic program that does not fit into the American scheme of things.

Even during our days, I remember that when we wanted to manufacture rockets in Pakistan, NASA’s help was not forthcoming. So, we had to look to other countries. And finally, we entered into a technology agreement, purchasing from France. And it was on French technology, that our rocket production plant in Maripur was established. So, it’s a matter of finding opportunities. That’s how cooperation proceeds ahead.

Another factor that adversely affected, Pakistan is this so-called terrorist issue. I don’t really want to go into that aspect. But the fallout of Iraq and Afghanistan has been very detrimental to Pakistan’s development. It has slowed down our economic development and investment from other countries. The fallout of the instability, and wars in the Middle East, was very damaging to Pakistan. We lost these years. Even Bangladesh today is ahead of us because they’ve had peace. We haven’t had peace in the last 30 years.

Scientia: Finally, what is your vision for the future of Pakistan?

Dr. Tariq Mustafa: One can only pray that there is peace in the country and in the neighborhood. We have to depend on friendly technology transfers. The speed of development of the world is so fast, things have been accelerating. The world is now almost on an exponential curve. No one can depend on their own resources. It has to be cooperation. And for that good peaceful conditions, law and order are necessary. These are all requirements on the political level.

But at the scientific level, of course, I think we have to step up learning. We have to remember the spirit which animated our ancestors. Muslim scientists led the world for at least 800 years. That wasn’t done just by being followers. That was done by good leadership, hard work, and open minds.  Our education system has to be opened up that way. If we can do that, there is no reason why we cannot go back to the kind of pace that we had developed in the 60s. It comes down to good leadership and hopefully, a good political environment.

Also, Read: Exploring DATA Sciences with Prof. Dr. Murtaza Haider

2 thoughts on “Venturing into the 60s and the current status of space research in Pakistan with Dr. Tariq Mustafa

  1. This is a great read. Thank you for conducting this exercise and sharing it with us all. Valuable insights and memories. Pinches hard to realise how much of our own progress we have pilfered over time.

  2. Interesting background of Pakistan’s game in the Space Sciences, there was a good legacy a long time ago, which should have been continued and must be pursued at least for now. Really enjoyed his side of the story!

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