The 142-feet-tall rocket rose on a funnel of fire, ripping through the air perfectly straight and exceedingly fast, before vanishing into a thick bank of clouds, heading for south pole of the moon

Sending a Pak astronaut will not be a great leap in space advancement for the country

Pakistan's minister for science and technology, Fawad Chaudhry, recently announced that the country will be sending its first astronaut to space in 2022. “Proud to announce that selection process for the first Pakistani to be sent to space shall begin from February 2020. Fifty people will be shortlisted. The list will then come down to 25, and in 2022, we will send our first person to space. This will be the biggest space event of our history,'' he had said.

The year 2022 is significant as it marks the 75th anniversary of the Independence of India and Pakistan. India had earlier announced that its project, Gaganyaan, would take Indian astronauts to a lower earth orbit in 2022.

The difference between the two space ambitions, however, is huge. Pakistan is likely to have its astronaut ride on board a Chinese vehicle. Pakistan and China, at the second Belt and Road Forum meet earlier this year, signed an agreement for space exploration. This agreement included astronaut training, manned space applications, scientific and technological experiments and achievement transformations, said the Chinese National Space Administration.

India, on the other hand, has been chipping away at the Human Space Program since 2004, when Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) widened its vision of harnessing space technology for national development and added a further line, saying “while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration”. India's Gaganyaan will largely be an indigenous mission, though ISRO is in talks with like-minded countries for collaboration. It recently signed an agreement with Russia for astronaut training. America's NASA too is keen to collaborate, though nothing has been inked as yet. The plan is for three Indian astronauts to fly in an India-made vehicle, atop the India-made rocket GSLV Mk III (one of which is already en route to the moon), from an Indian spaceport, Sriharikota.

Pakistan's mission is much low in scope and ambition, and it is a feat that India accomplished 25 years ago, when wing commander Rakesh Sharma, a test pilot of the Indian Air Force, flew into space in a Soyuz craft, along with two other cosmonauts of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

India has been making major advances in recent years with its space missions, and has carved a niche in the area of low-cost, high success missions. Some of its achievements have been rather innovative. For instance, India sent a probe to Mars in 2013 atop a very slender rocket—the PSLV, which was the only reliable vehicle in its stable back then. The probe has far surpassed its planned mission life of six months and is sending data to earth even now. In 2008, India sent a probe to the moon. Chandrayaan-1 found traces of water on the moon, a finding that added to the knowledge about the satellite. India has an observatory in space, Astrosat, and is planning a probe, Aditya, to study the solar corona next year. Recently, ISRO chairman K. Sivan announced that after Gaganyaan, India will set up its own space station. There is also a plan to explore Venus.

India has also made a name as an affordable transporter of small satellites and has ferried several satellites for foreign vendors. It recently made a record by transporting 104 small satellites and successfully injecting them in orbits. In contrast to India's mature space programme, Pakistan's is still a fledgling one, even though its Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was formed way back in 1961. ISRO was started in 1969 although India fired its first rocket from Thumba on November 21, 1963.

Both countries had failures and setbacks. India's first satellite, Aryabhatta, had a brief existence, a power failure rendered it lost four days after its launch in April 1975. India had taken Soviet help for the launch. Pakistan's initial probes too met early failures. But while India kept on going, learning from each mistake and setback, Pakistan's space programme never really took off. India, which faced denial of technology after Pokhran-II, went on to develop its own cryogenic technology. In 1999, when India was denied space images during the Kargil conflict, it decided to develop its own mapping and navigation network. Indian military no longer needs to rely on GPS now.

Pakistan, however, failed to rise after its failures and setbacks. Its space programme actually floundered from lack of interest by its leaders. Instead, Pakistan focused on missile technology and developed a mean armament.

In recent years, however, Indian progress in space has generated interested and concern in Pakistan. While many social media commentators from across the border have spoken in admiration of India's space feats, there is also a concern building up. The concern is two-fold. Firstly, NASA is actively collaborating with India in space. Previously, India's space partner was largely the Russian Roscosmos. France has been an old space partner too—Megha-Tropiques, the weather studying collaborative satellites, being an early joint mission success.

Seeing the Americans teaming up with the Indians is a matter of great concern for Pakistan, even though so far, the tie-ups are for space technology and exploratory missions. Pakistan has therefore turned towards its all weather friend, China. Last year, Pakistan launched two remote sensing satellites by China for monitoring progress on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The second concern for Pakistan was India testing its anti-satellite technology earlier this year. Pakistan has realised it needs to make up for lost time and quickly catch up.

Narendra Modi, soon after becoming prime minister in 2014, extended India's expertise in space technology to its neighbours and proposed a SAARC Satellite. Pakistan, however, refused to join in. The satellite was subsequently launched as a South Asia satellite. It is a communication satellite, which means it can be used for mobile network expansion and satellite television, among other applications.

Sending a Pakistani astronaut will not be a great leap in space advancement for the country. However, it will do for Pakistan just what India's accomplishments have done for Indians. It will boost the national image, give Pakistanis reasons to be proud of. It will also create a healthy competition in 2022, as both countries get jingoistic. But even if the Pakistani astronaut flies out before the Indian team, India's feat will still be unique. It will be the celebration of the success of a human space flight mission. Pakistan will only be celebrating what India did in 1984.