Why the Malaysian Space Escapade Was Money Down the Drain
While everyone was apparently getting excited about Malaysia's first "astronaut", I quietly ignored the whole brouhaha. While it was a great publicity stunt, there wasn't anything more to it.
The issue has, like a lot of other Malaysian "accomplishments", been quite polarising. If you care at all about the issue (which a lot of Malaysians don't necessarily do), you either think it's a marvelous achievement, or a meaningless stunt.
The interesting thing is that there doesn't seem to be much rational or sensible debate about the subject of Malaysia in space, which is somewhat disappointing. The natural instinct has been either to defend the space programme, or to deride it, without discussing the potential role a meaningful space programme could play.
Here is why the Malaysian space programme thus far is a joke: it makes no meaningful contribution to science. It is purely a publicity stunt; we want to be able to say someone from our country was in space.
If you really think about it, that's rather stupid; anyone can be in space if they have enough money these days. They just have to pay the Russians. Some have called Anousheh Ansari the first Iranian astronaut, even though she was the one who paid for her space ride.
Malaysia insists we're different because we made our astronauts undergo a rigorous selection process, and we conducted important experiments in space. (By the way, I wonder what happened to the idea of playing batu seremban and making teh tarik in space?) But Ansari conducted experiments too, on behalf of the European Space Agency.
The crucial distinguishing factor, really, is that she paid for her ride, while the Malaysian government paid for the ride of one Malaysian citizen, who it selected on the basis of a number of physical tests. This does not a true astronaut make; this is no space programme.
I think there is nothing wrong at all with working towards the goal of putting a Malaysian into space. I just think it's completely stupid to cheat on the "working towards" part.
Having a real space programme implies that we have the intellectual manpower to conduct groundbreaking experiments, to develop real innovations, to actually make the different environment of space something we can exploit to further our country and the human race.
Thus, to work towards a real Malaysian astronaut and a real Malaysian space programme, we would not be paying the Russians to put a Malaysian citizen in space, which really implies nothing. At the barest minimum, we would be paying the Russians to put a Malaysian citizen into space so he could test a Malaysian hypothesis.
I don't know what experiments our astronaut did in space, but none of them probably really matter. Our physicists did not propose any interesting hypotheses he could test; our biologists did not learn anything new about how the body behaves in space; our chemists certainly are no better off.
The whole point of going into space is to learn about our world. It is not to be able to say you put someone X kilometres above the ground, away from the earth. That's something for the record books, but it is not for science; it is not a real space programme.
Let's not kid ourselves. We don't have a real space programme — and the reason is because we don't have a real academic and intellectual community in our country. We have a repressed academic community — we have a society where thinking is discouraged. It isn't surprising then that we don't have a space programme to speak of.
If we want a true astronaut we can be proud of, then please, let's have a space agency with some real goals — goals that don't necessarily include putting our country or its people in the record books. We should be doing something that makes us better off — and that means furthering our knowledge. That should be the point of our space programme.