The Moon and Mars

Fakir Syed Aijazuddin
Fakir Syed Aijazuddin

Pakistan was given independence by the departing British in August 1947. The People’s Republic of China fought for and declared independence in October 1949.

On 15 May, the Chinese successfully landed its Tianwen-1 spacecraft on Mars, while on earth Pakistanis argued whether the Shawwal moon had been sighted or not.

The Chinese space lander and rover (named ‘Zhurong’ after the Chinese god of fire) is the most recent of a number of missions to Mars – by the United States, the Russians, and in their wake an unlikely United Arab Emirates with its ‘Hope’ orbiter.

The achievements of the Chinese Zhurong mission deserves plaudits for a number of reasons. The time it took: the spacecraft left Earth in July 2020 and arrived at Mars ten months later in February 2021. The complexity of the task:  according to one scientific report, ‘landing on Mars is notoriously difficult, not least because engineers back on Earth have no control over it in real time, and must leave pre-programmed instructions to play out. Many missions have been lost, or have crashed on arrival.’ The mission’s uniqueness: it was a one shot exercise. As the China National Space Administration (CNSA) explained: ‘Each step had only one chance, and the actions were closely linked. If there had been any flaw, the landing would have failed.’

To historians, perhaps the most telling achievement is that the Chinese space programme is home-grown. They did not abduct German scientists as the Americans and the Russians did following the defeat of Germany in 1945. The American ‘Operation Paperclip’ secreted over 1,600 scientists, technicians and skilled engineers (many of them card-carrying Nazis) to the U.S. to kick-start its missile and space programme. The Russians, using the ‘Alsos’ programme, trawled the Nazi research facilities equally assiduously. Ironically, German brains provided the fission that exploded bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, took Sputniks into space, sent men to the moon, and fuelled a simmering Cold War.

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union shared their technological know-how with their Chinese comrades. The Chinese, having learned how to fish, became their own fishermen, especially after the Sino-Soviet rift in the 1960s.

What is it though that has propelled the Chinese from being a nation of a billion bicycles to becoming an interplanetary power? What has fused their raw ore into indomitable iron?

The first characteristic is an almost genetic obedience to authority. The west mocked it as oriental ‘kow-towing’. The Thais still practice it by lolling on the ground before their playboy king. The British observe a form of it when they bow or curtsey before their monarch and less deserving royals. The Americans do it by voting for Donald Trump. We Pakistanis do it instinctively with every change of regime.

The second attribute that distinguishes the Chinese is their heightened sense of destiny. The PRC has been in existence for 72 years. The Chinese Communist Party will be celebrating its centenary this July. Chinese history though bears the footprint of innumerable dynasties. A road that is so well travelled cannot end in a cul de sac, for Fate has chosen China to be its next favourite.

The next attribute to China’s success must be its ethnic self-confidence. And finally, is the Chinese work ethic which can painstakingly carve adamantine jade into miniature floating clouds and fragile blossoms, and at the same time send Tianwen-1 to Mars with faultless precision.

While the current missions are exploring the surface of Mars, it may take some time for them to return with rock samples. The first consignment of 50 moon rocks was brought back by US Apollo XI’s astronauts in 1969.

President Richard Nixon, in a gesture of universality, sent fragments taken from them to every government on our planet. Part of its own share is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.  The sliver sent to Pakistan is in the drawing room of the late president Yahya Khan’s grandson. As far as the Pakistani public is concerned, it might as well have remained on the moon.

If and when a Pakistani sets foot on the moon, he may well find that the Chinese have already established a Specialised Economic Zone there, for to the Chinese, the One Belt, One Road initiative is one step of many – first encompass the globe and then extend markets into the stars.

National introspection is never wasted time. We need to acknowledge that the earnestness of our leaders exceeds their competence. Their policies are grouted in quicksand. They use laws as weapons against their enemies rather than tools to calibrate the machinery of governance. Their ministers rotate aimlessly in orbit around self-centred suns.

Why can’t we take one small step into the future, instead of making giant leaps backwards?

Fakir S Aijazuddin is a noted thinker and columnist of Pakistan

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