Space historian Dr Asif Azam Siddiqi talks to Fintech
One of the most renowned space historians, the Bangladeshi born Dr Asif Azam Siddiqi is a professor of history at Fordham University in the United States.
His book Challenge to Apollo, the Soviet Union and the Spaceways (1945-1974) is widely regarded as one of the finest books on the history of space exploration.
The American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronauts called this work the best historical manuscript dealing with the science, technology and impact of aeronautics and alistanotics.
In 2007, the South Asian Journal USA named him one of the 50 top influential, efficient south Asians in the country. Currently working at Fordham University in New York City as a professor of history, Dr Siddiqi has also been working with NASA since 1995 as a research consultant. He gave a lot of detailed reports about deep space exploration.
He’s also visiting professor of three most famous universities, mainly Harvard, MIT, Caltech. His role in these final institutions is very very significant.
Here is an excerpt of an interview Fintech had with Dr Asif Azam Siddiqi as part of an interview series called ‘Being Bangladeshi Making a Difference’.
Was there any particular reason you chose a career in space history?
My story regarding space exploration begins from my childhood. I used to live in Dhaka and my parents were very supportive and they wanted me to learn more about science. I would go to a lot of book fairs when I was a kid. One such day, I came across a book on space exploration and I bought it.
Upon arriving home I started reading it and I had a grand time learning all these new things. So my mother encouraged me to write an essay on the matter. So as I began to write more and more essays my interest began to grow. I also participated in a lot of competitions. I took my SSC exam in 1981 from Saint Joseph’s school. After that I had a lot of time and I would spend a lot of time reading those particular books. After that I won a small competition in Dhaka leading me to attend this conference with my father.
There were different people, Americans, Russians, Portuguese, all these people talking about space exploration. Gradually my trust began to grow further. What I noticed was there were Bangladeshi scientists working at Bangladeshi space research institutes. It was right at Kurmitola, Dhaka.
It was surprising and intriguing to me at the same time that Bangladeshi scientists were studying about space. I came to the US in the 1980s and I studied engineering. After that, slowly and gradually, I began to work with things related to space exploration in some fashion or the other. There were a lot of challenges ahead and sometimes it was really hard. But thankfully my persistence paid off. I even developed relationships with the people working at the Bangladesh Space Research Institute.
By 1995 I was involved in a project with NASA. It was a small project, nothing significant but at least I had my foot on the door. There was a person at NASA called Roger Lanius. He saw something in me and I maintain a healthy relationship with him. So those are my initial involvements regarding space exploration in those early days.
BANGLADESH BEING A FAST DEVELOPING COUNTRY, IT HAS AT THE SAME TIME A LOT TO CONTRIBUTE AS WELL AS GAIN FROM SPACE. THE RECENTLY LAUNCHED BANGABANDHU SATELLITE HAS PROVIDED COMMUNICATION FOR BANGLADESH.
What does space exploration hold for ordinary people ? How does it appeal to them ?
People used to ask me why I would read books on space exploration, when there were many other topics and problems that were at hand. It’s true, space exploration won’t necessarily solve the persistent problems that Bangladeshis have been facing for long. Problems like climate change and any other problems. But I feel like people have a misconception about what space really does. Space actually has a very close relationship with our lives. For example, let’s consider the GPS systems and the satellites that we have. Everybody has smart phones, and these satellites provide location data for us. That is what we use to navigate maps, etc. When we are moving or not, space affects our lives a great deal .
Right now we are entering a new era where it may be possible for the average person to go into space. Bangladesh being a fast developing country, it has at the same time a lot to contribute as well as gain from space. The recently launched Bangabandhu satellite has provided communication for Bangladesh. BRAC University also launched a satellite recently that was home built. There are a lot of opportunities for university students as well. They can come together and collaborate and build something that can be beneficial for society as a whole. Climate change and deforestation are new problems we are facing. Satellites can help a lot in this aspect, and they can provide locational data, they can provide data that may be useful to people.
How do countries with scarcity of technology commit to advancement of technology in the first place? Things like biological technology or technology regarding space?
This is certainly a matter of priorities. For example, why should we focus on Y problems when we already have X problems? In my opinion this is a false equivalency. I think these two issues can work for one another. But we have to be sensitive and we have to prioritize what needs to be prioritized.
Problems like gender equality, economic inequality, politics, democratic rights, and so on. We should put in resources to study and analyze these problems. My solution is not to abandon these problems, but rather to infuse the technology for space exploration into these problems to see if they can help in these aspects. I have already mentioned climate change, and there are going to be some significant changes in the next 50 years to the coastal shores, to the Bay of Bengal, etc. We can put some modest resources into this, for example, collaboration with other countries. SPARSO is doing some wonderful research recently. They can provide some summation of their work.
Space can be involved in devoting some resources to these problems. Remote sensing is an excellent way to do this. Remote sensing is when the satellite takes pictures at different wavelengths of the terrain below. This gives us a lot of information about the geography and the topography of the terrain in question. Many developing countries like Nigeria, Kenya, North Africa also have space programs and Bangladesh should definitely collaborate with them regarding this matter.
r is also an eye opening opportunity. For now human survival is probably the biggest challenge that we have . Regarding space and aeronautics, for the past seven years and well into the future, you are actually giving a philosophical direction regarding space history. With people learning many things in this pandemic, should we move forward with this or will this remain a missed opportunity? I would like your opinion on this.
Tell us about your thoughts on the pandemic situation. What will happen to Bangladesh? What will be done next?
I think many indicators were relatively stable. I think this is an excellent outcome, not disregarding the pain and deaths of the people of the country. I certainly don’t want to minimize sickness and death. We should take a moment to remember that. But at the same time, economically speaking, if nothing else we still are lucky that we haven’t been facing economic collapse.
That said, there are problems in Bangladesh which are independent of the pandemic, which we haven’t been able to fully solve. A big problem is that a small number of people control the majority of the wealth of the country. There are governance issues, and we need better governance. Our institutions don’t work the way they’re supposed to and there are many inefficiencies. Other countries have these problems as well, so they are not unique to Bangladesh, but they are very specific towards them. We all need to commit ourselves to the original version of Bangladesh. We need to be a proper country, a prosperous country, our country not only for the rich but for the poor as well, a country for all of us.
I think we have a lot to learn from other countries as well as their histories. In the case of Soviet Russia, during World War II around 27 million people died. So they weren’t exactly in a favourable position but slowly but surely they got back up. They were able to develop slowly over a period of two or three decades.
Back in our own liberation war, we also faced great tragedy and horror and there was a large amount of killings as well. And I certainly hope the next 50 years we face are much much better than the ones we have had to face up till now. And I think we should devote resources at every level, from the person on the ground to the government. We should try to develop resources.
I think in terms of space technology it would be most useful to observe the environmental changes in Bangladesh. We live in this environment and we cannot live without the support of this environment. We need to take care and serve, and be stewards of the environment. Advanced technology can be harnessed to focus on this problem, this is my personal opinion.
Can you talk about the Mars Perseverance project?
The Mars Rover Perseverance is a fabulous and interesting project. What is interesting about the Mars rover, which is currently at Mars, is that it has a helicopter underneath it. By helicopter, I mean a drone like a helicopter. This will be released in the coming month and it will go about the atmosphere of Mars and take various pictures of the terrain.
It will also measure things like temperature and pressure, etc. It was conceived around 15 years ago. The Perseverance project was proposed back in 2005 or 2006. Many different scientists were involved and it took about a decade to develop this thing. This is not a trivial matter.
What kind of involvement or interest do you have in space related science based in Bangladesh?
I’m currently working on a small project regarding Bangladesh as of now, upon the Bangladesh space program. Many people in Bangladesh don’t know that we have our own space program. It started back in 1980. I’m also writing a book regarding this organization.
A while back I did write a masters thesis, the title is “Effects of Technological Change in Agriculture in Distributive Justice in Bangladesh”. The basic ideas I was interested in were agricultural science and technology. For example, high yield rice and so forth. I was also into mechanization of Bangladesh agriculture. I found out what happens to income and equality when any high level technology may appear towards the people of Bangladesh.
It was a bit counterintuitive. I found that, when you introduce high-tech technology to Bangladesh society, particularly in the agrarian areas, it often increases inequality. That’s because some people have it and some people don’t. It gave me a lot of insight into the original problem that we’ve been discussing today.
Developing nations always have some sort of scarcity. This particular problem was the driving force for a lot of the work I have done. You have to be careful when taking on new technology about the access it grants to people. Does everybody have access to this technology? What does “access” mean? How much does it cost? So we need to be aware of these things and we need to calculate a certain amount of things before we blindly take on new technology. And I think policymakers as well as economists know this. Goes to show that high tech is not the answer for everything. We have to be careful about how we adopt technology in our own society.
I THINK WE CAN DREAM THAT IF WE BANGLADESHIS WERE MORE INVESTED IN SPACE, WE COULD ONE DAY SEND A BANGLADESHI MAN/WOMAN TO OUTER SPACE. AND THAT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE AT A DISTANT TIME, IT COULD HAPPEN SOONER THAN YOU THINK.
We are your thoughts about Elon Musk’s space programs?
Elon Musk is building some rockets whose trajectory leads them to Mars. He is going to send people to Mars and those people are going to settle on Mars and make a society of their own. That may happen but it will take a long time. Meanwhile we should really focus on making the earth a better place, a more habitable place to live.
In 10-20 years it may be possible that there is some migration to Mars. But that will probably be for the very elite people out there. Ordinary people can’t go for a much longer time. But I think we can dream that if we Bangladeshis were more invested in space, we could one day send a Bangladeshi man/woman to outer space. And that doesn’t have to be at a distant time, it could happen sooner than you think. People from a lot of countries have been to space, it is not strange that a Bangladeshi man gets to go to space. It would be immensely inspirational if the younger generation were to see one of their own go into space. That might be a possibility in the next 10 to 20 years.
Elon musk speaks a lot about Mars. But I think that is a possibility that is a bit distant for now. We need to focus more on what we need to do in the near future. We have people working at SpaceX and they are very good at what they’re involved in. So, why not the next step? That’s the question, that’s the challenge.
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