Saturday, January 30, 2010

DC DIARY: Up, up and away —Zeeshan Suhail

The facility at Goddard was constructed in 1990 and now houses 8,000 employees. NASA’s annual budget ranges from $ 3.4 — $ 4.0 billion — an amount quite close to Pakistan’s annual defence budget! This stark reality made me ponder how misplaced our priorities are

Today has been one of those days when I cannot help but think how fortunate I am to live in a city like Washington, DC. Not only does the city afford a myriad of opportunities to participate in activities that have an impact on the global state of affairs, it affords a chance to enhance one’s knowledge by doing simple things, like visiting a museum or attending a conference. DC is in many ways a microcosm of what the rest of the world should be like, a place where empowerment through knowledge acquisition is the norm — not the exception.

In the light of the above hopes and dreams, my readers will appreciate my recent excursion to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre just outside DC. NASA is the branch of the US government that deals with both earth and space science and is charged with research and education about these two issues as part of its mandate. The Goddard Centre is a sprawling complex sitting on hundreds of acres of land and truly feels like a campus. Most NASA staff at the complex dressed informally and were concentrating too deeply on their computers to realise they had 40 World Bank staff in their midst, busy taking photos every chance they got. This was, after all, a rare opportunity, especially for the staff visiting from Country Offices.

We were expecting to only be shown the Visitors Centre (where we saw two short films on the melting of global ice and the other on the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter), but an acquaintance was kind enough to allow us access to the actual building where the Hubble telescope is assembled and tested. This telescope was responsible for providing insight into not only the age of the universe but the nature of stars and galaxies millions of light years away. Considering how large this telescope is (nearly 40 feet tall), it is not surprising that the building where the telescope is assembled was also fairly large, replete with its own vibration and acoustics testing halls. Another large, circular room allowed for the telescope machinery to be placed in a centrifuge machine that could spin at such a speed that the gravitational force would be nearly 20 times that of Earth’s!

The facility at Goddard was constructed in 1990 and now houses 8,000 employees. NASA’s annual budget ranges from $ 3.4 — $ 4.0 billion — an amount quite close to Pakistan’s annual defence budget! This stark reality made me ponder how misplaced our priorities are. In the US, an entire branch of the government does research and study on the earth and the galaxy we live in, as well as beyond. In Pakistan, instead, our research and study is barely of a level where a prospective student might want to go on for a doctoral degree. At NASA, on the contrary, the organisation will pay for every year of your graduate studies and then offer you employment upon completion, if the research and scientific interests align. This, my friends, is the difference between an industrialised country and a developing country: one understands the power of knowledge, while the other does not.

I left NASA in awe of what this country has accomplished in a field that Pakistan barely has any knowledge of, let alone expertise in. I was empowered by what I saw and learned, yet my heart ached for the path ahead for Pakistan. Miles to go before I sleep, as Robert Frost would say.

I returned to DC to finish up some work in the office but realised it was 8:30 pm when I was leaving. Aside from this city offering you lots of opportunities for professional development, it also leaves you with the feeling that you must always be productive — and busy! Yet when I was walking towards the bus stop, I noticed a lot of security. My usual walk through Lafayette Park, which is right in front of the White House, was disrupted by a yellow “do not cross” tape, which I immediately recognised due to the event about to begin within a few minutes: Barack Obama’s first State of the Union speech! It all came together now. Everyone was in a hurry to get home. Security was tight. A helicopter flew above the city, surveying the area below. It was like being in New York City during the annual UN General Assembly session! Ah, how I miss the protocol, the motorcades, the pomp and circumstance.

All in all, not a bad day, I would say. While many of NASA’s engineers and astronauts would, at some point, be involved in a vehicle that propels them up, up and away, Pakistanis are in dire need of a vehicle that also pushes them up, up and away: education. Aside from healthcare, it is the one true global ingredient for prosperity. All great civilisations moved forward only due to this core ingredient being mixed in with others to create something that had depth, breadth and volume. The people know what the priorities are. Now it is the politician’s turn to show that they do too.

Zeeshan Suhail is a consultant with the World Bank in Washington, DC and Chairperson of the Board of the New York City-based Muslim Consultative Network and a Board Member of the Washington, DC-based Americans for Informed Democracy. He can be reached at

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