Power Politics, New Delhi, November 2008
Chandrayaan – I
On 22 October 2008 India successfully launched its first unmanned spacecraft, Chandrayaan-I, into space. As a first step the craft has been placed in an elongated orbit around the Earth. The orbit will be made more and more elongated till in about two weeks’ time the craft is transferred to a lunar orbit about 100 km away from the Moon. The 590 kg probe will have a working life of about two years. It carries eleven thematically integrated scientific payloads, five from India, three from European Space Agency(ESA), two from USA and one from Bulgaria. All the experiments aim at creating a high-resolution map of the lunar surface and the minerals beneath it. NASA is particularly interested in searching for ice beneath the lunar poles.
Like Indian Space Research Organization’s earlier missions this one is also a remote sensing satellite except that it focuses on the Moon rather than the Earth. With its successful launch India joins a select club comprising US, Russia, Japan and China.
The Moon is unique in the solar system in an important aspect. While the other natural satellites are minuscule compared to the parent planet, the Moon and the Earth are more like a double planet. Indeed ancient Indian folklore dubs Moon as a brother of the mother Earth (hence the epithet Chanda-mama).
As can be expected from an ancient culture India has an abiding affair with the Moon. Serving as a time-keeper. coming to the aid of a harassed mother by lulling the child to sleep; acting as a witness to the lovers’ tryst; inspiring the poets– the waxing and waning Moon has always played an important societal role that has been highlighted in a number of melodious film songs in the past decades. India is now seeking to establish a first-hand and a more material equation with our terrestrial neighbour.
What is the mission expected to achieve? The Moon has never been imaged so closely as will be done by the Chandrayaan. How the solar system formed is a challenging research problem in astronomy . Within the solar system the formation of the Earth-Moon system raises many questions. Additional data will help refine the existing theories, although it is unlikely that any surprises will be sprung.
Can the mission have any utilitarian value? Very wisely ISRO does not say. But there are long-standing suggestions on the practical side of lunar missions that have now been revived. Thus it has been proposed that the Moon itself can be colonized and used as a launching pad for farther colonies. If this is escapism, there is another suggestion that the Moon be asked to meet Earth’s energy needs. As is well known the lunar soil contains vast amounts of helium 3, an isotope of helium. There are experts who would like this helium to be dug up and brought to earth for use as a raw material for fusion reactions. It is interesting that when Mount Everest is climbed no justification is asked for or proffered. Yet in the case of a technological mission some profit should be promised. May be this is because of the heavy costs involved.
The whole idea of bringing resources from the Moon to the Earth is an exceptionally stupid one and needs to be squashed right away.
In my view the most important aspect of the Chandrayaan mission is that it would plant Indian national flag on the Moon. An unmanned space-probe is a technological feat of high order. An added feature is that India’s space program is extremely good value for money from even international standards. No wonder then that ISRO’s rocket launching facilities are being commercially used by others. It is most appropriate that the space vehicle launching facility at Shriharikota on the eastern coast has been named after Satish Dhawan. If Vikram Sarabhai be compared to the founder of the Mughal Empire ,Babar, then Dhawan can be equated with Akbar.
India’s space program is the most successful of all national science initiatives. One reason for this is easy to see. In space exploration there is no room for excuses or rationalizations. The difference between success and failure is obvious . Either a satellite remains in orbit or falls down. The principles and procedures that have been developed in space management need to be carefully studied with a view to examining the possibility of their wider application.
Without diminishing the credit due to India, its space program needs to be examined in a wider context for purposes of insight. Let us make a distinction between a rising technology and a flat technology. As the name suggests a rising technology is one which is currently undergoing rapid phases of development while a flat technology is one which has been more or less standardized. Clearly, a rising technology of today is a flat technology of tomorrow.
If lunar missions now have been left to the likes of Japan, China and Japan it is because they now constitute standard technologies. If colonization and mining of celestial bodies become a possibility, you would see the initiative being grabbed back by US and to a lesser extent by ESA.
Where does India go from here? A manned flight and an Indian on the Moon are said to be on the cards. Given ISRO’s record these goals should not be difficult to accomplish. What would limit India’s space ambitions is not technology or finance but manpower.
Fortuitously Chandrayaan has been well-timed. Its launch has coincided with the onset of world-wide financial and economic crises. It is as well that the quantification of financial instruments has fallen into disrepute and the processes of globalization received a setback. Their glamour and pelf were acting as a brain sink, to the detriment of science. If Lehman Brothers was to be the resting place for Indian Institute of Technology-imparted engineering skills, it is good that it is closed down.
Almost two centuries ago India became the first country in the world in modern times to receive state aid for education. This was a dubious distinction, because the state in question was the East India Company and the aid was meant to subsidize the education of children of wealthy Indians. This sort of elitism has returned with vengeance in the globalization era. The Indian state has been greatly indulgent towards the education of those who would de-nationalize themselves and not mind even petty jobbery beneath their intellect and skills for the sake of a dollar pay packet which though small in absolute terms still translates into a neat bundle in rupees.
To meet the manpower requirement of ISRO and other similar agencies, the government should strengthen middle-order institutions and bring in first-generation learners.
Indian public, parliament and media as well as the world at large have been unanimous or near-unanimous in hailing India’s foray into the outer space. Perhaps the best testimony to India’s space programme comes from the fact that it had such high faith in its own capabilities that no need was felt to insure the Chandrayaan.//