September 6, 2023
Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate and the first Muslim to win the prize, had a vision. The year was 1961. Pakistan was in its infancy; the country had won independence from the British only 14 years prior, and resources were scarce. But the theoretical physicist convinced the country’s second president Ayub Khan of the importance of getting to space, and the two launched the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) in 1961, eight years before India would begin a space program. Pakistan sent rockets into space 200 times between 1962 and 1972, all under Salam’s leadership.
Under Salam’s direction, Pakistan beat India to space by 13 years. The two space programs arose during the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were racing to the moon. The two axes of power also took sides after the Partition, with the U.S. backing Pakistan’s space program and the Soviet Union whispering in India’s ear. But while India reached the moon — and, soon after, the sun — in the past few weeks, Pakistan’s space program still hasn’t made its own launcher. Given that Pakistan’s promising space program began with much fanfare and a NASA co-sign, the two South Asian nations very well might have had a space race of their own.