July 2021 is marked with two significant events in the history of space exploration. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire to travel to space in his own space ship ‘New Shepard’ on 20th July, 2021, from Texas USA. Earlier, on July 11th Richard Branson went to space aboard his ‘VSS Unity’ space plane, which is operated by Virgin Galactic. Both, Bezoz’s Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are the chief rivals in the suborbital space tourism business. Elon Musk of ‘Tesla Motors’ fame has already made history with his ‘Space X’ and is pioneering breakthrough technologies in aerospace and aeronautics. Last year Elon Musk’s Space X launched astronauts into space to ISS (International Space Station) from American soil in almost a decade. What makes it significant is the fact that Space X is a Pvt Ltd Co that was awarded the contract by NASA to send its astronauts to the space station. Since retiring the famous Space Shuttle, NASA has been working with private firms to carry forward the space missions such as commuting astronauts to ISS. Other than Space X, other upstarts into private space industry have also been engaged.
The space program is less than a century old, and already private ventures have been launched successfully, all in USA, given the fact that rocket science is both complicated and expensive. So what has made these space startups go into space and led them to success? Strong economy with enough venture capitalism is a big reason for this. But a strong technological base is the main reason that these feats in space have been achieved in private domain. The rewards of private ventures are already visible in the form of breakthrough technologies such as reverse landing of the rocket boosters; something public domain never worked upon and private did for the obvious financial implications of reusing the rocket booster multiple times.
In the last one-hundred-year man has made more progress in technology than all its previous history combined. In less than a century man has learned to fly, sent rockets to space, landed on moon and operated unmanned vehicles on Mars. Built upon solid science, the related technologies have emerged in all fields, particularly electronics, ICTs, aerospace, metallurgy and software technologies. However, with each passing day the technologies become increasingly complex and out of the reach of developing nations. Take the phone for instance; while the traditional landline telephone was manufactured everywhere, the present day smart phone is made by a handful of countries. Similarly, advancement in technologies have put machines like railway engines, cars, telecomm eqpt and rockets/airplanes out of the reach of developing nations, that simply do not have the wherewithal to manufacture these hi-tech systems.
Some three hundred supporting industries are required to build an aircraft because of the sheer diversity and complexity of technologies involved. The complexity of systems dictates that no one firm, let alone an individual, can produce a complete solution all by itself. As microprocessors get embedded into conventional machines and software controls all hardware, the modern technology escapes from the developing countries farther and farther. Resultantly the low end produce of the nation is not enough to import the high tech equipment required. In consequence, the economic disparity generates reliance on others and an import-export dis-balance that degrades economy. And it is an established fact that a nation’s security is linked to its economy.
The Industrial revolution that started some 300 years ago in England, has now come to China after propelling USA, Germany, Japan, and Korea to technological heights – amongst others. Thus the fourth industrial revolution is now taking effect with advancements that are increasing the gap between developed and developing nations, exponentially. This implies serious economic, social and security concerns for the nations that are left behind in technological advancements. If a whole year’s yield of a crop can buy you one fighter aircraft, then you can never claim to be self-reliant. One may leap frog some technologies by reverse engineering, but mostly it requires an indigenous knowledge and manpower base of core technologies.
Pakistan’s reliance on low tech industries, mainly textile and construction has not helped in gaining any technological advancement in any field. Both are main driving industries of Pakistan and consume much of the resources of the country, yet the yield in terms of highly skilled force or technology base, is almost non-existent. As a result, other industries haven’t had the required government support, and resultantly haven’t made any progress. For example, limited technological advancement has been seen in Sialkot and Gujranwala based industries. A spin-off into other industries such as automotive and biomedical would have been a welcome evolution, but even that has not happened. In fact, any technological advancement seen in the country is due to the infant defence industry. On the other hand, China has culled many industries in the world including Pakistan; even the low end shoe and plastic industry.
Developing nations must venture into some high-tech industry or be forever dependent on advanced countries. Even if Space travel is not an immediate requirement, planes, trains and automobiles are. Core technologies like semiconductor devices, polymer synthesis, metallurgy and ceramics etc. have to be grasped to build an indigenous base. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are not only about software, but also about computer hardware and communication systems that are the backbone of the fourth industrial revolution. The future is going to only see these systems get more advanced and more complicated and more difficult to design and develop. The balance of power will, therefore, always remain tilted towards the technologically advanced nations.