This essay was written in November 2013 and published ( along with some supplementary eye-catching material) in Power Politics , December 2013 issue: http://www.powerpolitics.in/Issues/December2013/page31.php
On 5 November 2013, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Although the Mission has been nicknamed Mangalyaan in imitation of the 2008 Moon probe, Chandrayaan-I, there is a major difference between the two. While the latter actually landed on the Moon, the present craft will not touch Mars but revolve around it.
The simplest way of sending a space probe to Mars would be to launch it with the help of a powerful rocket that will take it straight to the destination. In the absence of such a powerful vehicle at India’s command, ISRO is depending on its trusted, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The travel method that uses the least possible amount of fuel, is complex and involves many interdependent steps. At each step one should keep one’s fingers crossed.
The journey up to Mars will be completed in three stages. The first stage began with the placement of MOM in the initial elliptical orbit around the Earth. By firing engines in quick succession (originally scheduled for 7, 8, 9, 11 and 16 November and 1 December), the orbit would be made more and more elliptical till finally it becomes hyperbolic. In other words, the Mission will spiral outwards till it feels energetic enough to leave the Earth’s gravitational field altogether. This would occur at a distance of about a million kilometers from the Earth.
The second stage of the journey is uneventful. The Mission will move a long distance of about 200 million kilometers in the interplanetary space for about 300 days to knock at the door of Martian gravitational field, that is at a distance of about half a million kilometers from Mars. If all goes well, on 24 September 2014, a rocket will be fired, this time to slow down the Mission so that it can start orbiting Mars. If for whatever reason the Mission is not captured by the Martian gravitational field, it will be lost forever.
Next to the Moon, Mars is the only attractive destination for extraterrestrial travel. Mars is the second smallest planet in the Solar System. The intense heat of the neighbouring Sun has stripped Mercury of all matter except the dense core. In the case of Mars disruptive influences have come from the tidal effect of Jupiter which prevented the asteroidal belt from coalescing into a planet and robbed Mars of its outer layers so that Mars is barely one tenth of Earth’s mass. The iron oxide on its surface gives the planet blood red colour and in antiquity earned for it, as a divinity, association with war.
All planets have a core made of iron. Since the Earth is fairly big sized, the weight of the outer layers keeps the core in a molten stage. The molten core in turn produces a magnetic field which shields the Earth from being bombarded by charged energetic particles coming from the Sun Earth. If the Earth did not have a magnetic field, life even if it evolved could not have been sustained. Mars like the Moon does not have a magnetic field.
Unlike Venus, which has a dense atmosphere, Mars like the Earth and the Moon has a reachable solid surface. Mars is the only planet whose surface can be examined from the Earth with the help of a telescope. The spin of Mars is like the Earth’s so that its day-and-night cycle is like ours, Its tilt is also like the Earth’s so that its seasons are like ours, The similarity ends there, Because of its small size, it has a very thin atmosphere, mostly consisting of carbon dioxide. Because of its larger distance from the Sun, it can get very cold. The temperature on Mars may reach a high of about 20 Celsius at noon at the equator in the summer, or a low of about -153 Celsius at the poles. At mid-latitudes, the temperature range could be zero to -60 Celsius. Such low temperatures are bad for mechanical and electronic parts of space crafts and instruments that land on the planet.
There is an irony in astronomy. It is easier to study distant objects than the nearest ones. Stars ( beginning with the Sun), stellar debris, gas clouds, galaxies and other phenomena can be studied by examining the electromagnetic radiation emanating from them. But since the members of the Solar System do not shine in their own light, we must go to them to get a closer look.
It must however be kept in mind that in space astronomy, political one-upmanship and considerations of national prestige have been a major driving force. The advent of Space Age was a direct corollary of the cold war of the 1950s between the two superpowers of the time, Soviet Union and USA. It is a historical curiosity that the pre-history of the space race and India’s introduction to space began with the same event.
In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish International Geophysical Year (IGY) from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, because the cyclic solar activity would be very high then. Eventually 64 countries participated in IGY. In October 1954, the Council adopted a resolution calling for artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY to map the Earth’s surface. Following up, in July 1955, USA announced its plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite. Six weeks later, in September, the Naval Research Laboratory was given approval for its Vanguard proposal.
Stealing the march over its arch rival USA, USSR launched the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik I on 4 October 1957. Pressing the advantage, Soviet Union launched Sputnik III on 3 November 1957 whose payload included a stray female dog. Laika who was picked from the streets of Moscow became the first animal to orbit the Earth.
If Sputnik I excited the world, it stunned and alarmed USA. It decided to meet the challenge at political, educational and technological levels. If the Soviets could launch satellites, they could also fire inter-continental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear weapons. USA must beat Soviet Union on land and in space.
Immediately after the Sputnik I launch, the USA approved funding for the Explorer project. On 31 January 1858, Explorer-I was launched with the help of a rocket made by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency under the direction of Wernher Von Braun, the leader of the team that had earlier built the celebrated German V-2 rocket . The satellite instrumentation of Explorer-I was designed and built by James Van Allen. Explorer-I went on to make the first scientific discovery from outer space; it spotted the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, since named after Van Allen.
It was instantly realized that if USA were to obtain and maintain lead as a superpower, it must reform its education system. So far, its education had largely been a state and local prerogative. The National Defense Education Act passed on 2 September 1958 gave the federal government an unprecedented role in educational matters. The act earmarked the then huge amount of $1 billion for giving college students loans and scholarships, and scientific equipment to public and private schools. Reflecting its origin in the Sputnik furor, the act emphasized the study of mathematics, science and foreign languages.
For meeting the challenge posed by the Sputnik launch on long-term basis, USA created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1 October 1958. If the Soviet Union had the satisfaction of launching the first artificial satellite and placing the first man in space, USA would have the distinction of taking a man to the Moon and bringing him back safely. The Soviet and American lunar space probes enriched our understanding of the Moon. In particular the robotic collection of lunar samples helped scientists understand the ‘geology’ of the Moon as well as the processes involved in its formation as a sister planet, rather than a satellite of, the Earth. Landing of an American citizen on the Moon in 1969 may have been a giant step for mankind and an all-time photo opportunity, but it had no worthwhile scientific merit. Our understanding of the Moon would have remained substantially the same even if Man had not set foot on it. The cold war may have ended, but the extra-scientific dimension of space exploration has persisted.
India and the satellites
On its part, newly independent India very enthusiastically joined the IGY programme. IGY’s prime mover, the American science administrator Lloyd Berkner, met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in January 1957 who promised all help. While most of the success that attended Indian efforts was incremental ( in ionospheric studies, for example), an entirely new vista was opened by IGY. India was introduced to the new field of satellites. Naini Tal Observatory was one of the 12 world stations equipped with a Baker-Nunn camera by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) to optically track artificial earth satellites. This part of the IGY programme was overseen by the director of Naini Tal observatory Manali Kallat Vainu Bappu who was educated at Hyderabad and sent to Harvard Observatory on a government scholarship for his Ph.D. Bappu’s Harvard connection was a great help because SAO’s new dynamic director Fred Whipple was also from Harvard. While the other satellite tracking stations the world over were under SAO’s control, the Indian station would be ‘under the complete jurisdiction of local astronomers’.
USA was very sensitive that the project should be viewed as international and not American. The importance USA attached to satellite tracking programme under IGY can be gauged form the fact that New York Times carried a news item datelined Naini Tal where the reporter made it a point to mention that both Soviet and American satellites would be tracked and the information ‘will become part of the treasury of scientific data’ of IGY.
The Baker-Nunn camera was shipped to India in March 1958, and the first track recorded in September 1958. For the first few years an observer from SAO worked with the Naini Tal staff. The project continued well beyond IGY, that is till 1976. Thanks to the project, the geographical location of the camera was recorded to an accuracy of better than 10 m, so much so that ‘the Survey of India tied their triangulation network to this benchmark’.
It will be no exaggeration to say that the IGY experience paved the way for Indian space programme under Vikram Sarabhai. Sarabhai had set up Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad (PRL), in 1947 under the directorship of K. R. Ramanathan who had just retired from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and who served as the president of International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics 1954-1957. IMD with its vast network of scientific stations was a major player in Indian IGY programme (so was All India Radio). PRL and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research , Bombay , established by Homi Jahangir Bhabha in 1945, though privately owned in a legal sense were generously supported by the government. While Bhabha or his institute had no role in IGY, Sarabhai and PRL were actively involved, no doubt because of the Ramanathan connection. (It is remarkable that Bhabha who pioneered India’s nuclear programme and Sarabhai who pioneered the space programme both died an unnatural death.)
Sarabhai had already been interested in observational studies of the impact of solar activity on cosmic rays. IGY exposure helped him expand his horizons. In 1962, an Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up. The very next year there came up the Equatorial Rocket Launching Station at Thumba near Trivandrum. Indian Space Research Organization was established in 1969, followed by the establishment of a Space Commission and a full-fledged government’s Department of Space in 1972. India’s first satellite, named Aryabhata after the sixth century Indian astronomer, was launched in 1975 and tracked at Naini Tal from the facility set up during IGY.
Arnold Frutkin, who was the director of NASA’s Office of International Programmes 1959 onwards, has an interesting story to tell. USA was planning the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) which could broadcast into home receivers provided the host country set up some simple equipment. NASA wished to have a big country like India participate in the programme. The India desk in the state department however declined to approach India because India had earlier refused permission to Voice of America to set up its broadcasting stations. The fact that SITE was not propaganda but science cut no ice with the officials. Frutkin then decided to take matters into his own hand. He knew Sarabhai well as he had been dealing with Sarabhai on sounding rocket programmes. He phoned Sarabhai and persuaded him not only to arrange for India’s participation but also to write as if the initiative was coming from India itself. The programme which lasted from 1 August 1975 to 31 July 1976, was such a great success from the Indian point of view that India unsuccessfully tried to get the availability of the US satellite extended for another year. India then decided to make use of commercial satellites. Eventually India developed its own satellite network as part of INSAT (Indian National Satellite System) programme, established in 1983.
Indian Mars mission objectives
Dutifully, ISRO has spelt out what it aims to achieve from the project. Its technological objectives, shorn of the verbiage, boil down to this: the Mission has been undertaken to demonstrate that it can be accomplished. The 1337 kg Indian Mars Mission carries a 13 kg scientific payload for five small experiments. The most eye-catching scientific objective is the detection of methane. Methane made up of one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen can be a marker of the existence of biological processes. (Note that on the Earth cow flatulence is a major producer of methane.) Methane if present on Mars would not necessarily mean that some sort of life is present there, because it can be produced by geological processes also, but its presence would certainly excite the newsreaders.
It is easier for scientific missions to find funding in India than in the West where the elected representatives have to be canvassed and convinced. Life, as we know on the Earth or come across in the comic books or science-fiction movies, does not, cannot, exist anywhere else in our planetary system. When the scientists discuss among themselves the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, they are merely talking of complex molecules. However, if the fund-givers get a different more spectacular impression, scientists are not particularly keen to dispel it.
The technological and scientific objectives are distinct in that they demand entirely different mindsets as should become clear from the Chandrayaan-I experience.
The space programme is an exercise in engineering. It requires thorough familiarity with known technologies, eye for detail, and meticulous care in planning and execution. The same can be said about scientific instrumentation also. But once data is obtained, boldness is required in its analysis and self-confidence in publishing the results. One wishes the Indian space scientists had shown alacrity in publishing their finding from the CHACE experiment aboard Chandrayaan-I on the presence of water vapour in the lunar atmosphere to claim priority in world scientific literature.
The poverty argument
The Times London noted the event by launching a virulent attack on India for its split personality. One third of Indian population has no access to a private lavatory. As many as 1.7 million Indian children die due to preventable diseases. Of those who survive, half suffer from malnutrition. Such a country, noted the London paper, has no right to squander money on such luxuries as space programme; it should rather utilize its resources in removing poverty and deprivation. The sentiments expressed are unexceptional. They would have more convincing if there was a consistency in the criticism of India’s profligacy.
I do not think The Times ever wrote an editorial criticizing Indian middle class’s lust for consumerism, or India’s squandering of its limited resources on such ecologically harmful items as motor cars. Since such expenditures are good for the Western economy, they are welcome. But whenever India achieves anything of strategic or geo-political significance, poverty argument is thrown at its face. It is nobody’s point that India should keep a very substantial part of its large population in extreme poverty. It is also conceded that the efforts which India should be making in this direction are not being made. The amount of money being spent on prestige-oriented projects is a very small fraction of Indian GDP which does not come in the way of poverty alleviation. If poverty is not being removed, it is not because money is being transferred to the space programme but because there is no collective political will to do so.
The Mars Mission has cost Indian exchequer no more than $75 million. How small the amount is can be seen from the fact that in the fiscal year 2011-12, India spent as much as $ 519 million on cosmetics and toiletries and related items such as essential oils.
It is conceded by everybody that Indian space programme is exceedingly good value for money. If the Indian space programme falters in the future, it will not be because of shortage of money but because of paucity of manpower. India created ISRO on the lines of NASA, but it did not create anything on the lines of the US National Defence Education Act.
Regrettably, in recent years, the Indian state has used globalization as an excuse to abdicate its responsibility in the vital area of education including science education. India should drastically improve its education system school upwards, pay attention to agricultural and industrial production, base its economy on science rather than services, and integrate prestige-building, technology-based programmes into the economy. Such programmes should not be an artificially created oasis in the midst of a vast desert, but part of a large landscape.
The writer is the President of International Astronomical Commission on History of Astronomy and a former Director of National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi (CSIR).