India’s MOM: Lifting off to Planet Mars

The success so far of the MOM project shows that when Indian wants, it can. It should want more, and on more fronts

There is nothing like some bracing news to cheer one amidst the general morosity that prevails around the world, not to mention the climate of mistrust amongst nations and leaders that have felt betrayed by what has come to be known as the American spying scandal.

Here in Mauritius we have our shopping list of what all is wrong with the country, from financial scams to corruption scandals to vile crimes, and now the heightened apprehensions under a cloud of pessimism that precede the presentation of the country’s Budget.

Luckily some good news came from India, which successfully launched a mission to planet Mars on Tuesday last. The very next day, the ‘God of cricket’ Sachin Tendulkar – who had already announced his retirement from the game at a mere 40 years of age and is also known as the ‘master blaster’ for his world-beater record as a cricketer – had met the expectations of the adulating crowds at Eden Gardens in Kolkata where he was playing the last (199th ) test match of his career by his brilliant performance against the West Indies on the very first day.

Another good tiding (if one may call it so), coming from London, was the auction sale of Mahatma Gandhi’ foldable charkha, his spinning wheel, for a whopping 110,000 pounds sterling. India being India, other records were being registered too, in the matter of gang rapes and of terrorist explosions allegedly aimed at the Opposition’s rallies and prime-ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections, Mr Narendra Modi.

But trust Indian scientists and its living legends of cricket to lift up the country’s mood despite all the gloom stories around.

The Mangalyaan Mission took but fifteen months to put together, the period during which the satellite that will eventually travel to Mars, the Mars Orbiter, was built on a fast-track basis. And at a cost of (Indian) Rs 450 crores, about USD 73 million (NB: one crore = 10 million), less than a quarter the cost of a Dreamliner airplane which is Rs 1900 crores and giving quite a bit of trouble to date to the different airlines that are flying it (for example, no later than two days ago on a London – New Delhi flight), it is apparently a tenth of what a similar mission planned by NASA shortly will be costing.

Further, as UG Rao, a former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) which is responsible for all space projects in India, pointed out, Indians spend Rs 5000 crores for Divali crackers on a single day, what is Rs 450 crores in comparison? The personal fortune of so many Indians would exceed this sum by far.

‘Prestige’ and pricey projects

There have been other criticisms too, for example that a country with so much unresolved poverty could have used the money towards alleviating it. This was aired not only by some Indians, but was also a comment by BBC as it – predictably – showed a picture of slums in India. If we go by this reasoning, then there should not have been the Industrial Revolution in Europe: it took place at a time when there was rampant poverty there if we go by the novels of Dickens and other accounts.

Similarly, there should be a stop to all ‘prestige’ and pricey projects in science and technology (S & T) because of the financial crisis in the US and the ongoing Eurozone crisis. That logic is clearly flawed: it is path-breaking developments in S & T that have improved the lives of peoples around the world, creating new fields and opportunities for employment and so on. S & T, in other words, is one of the important means to address poverty, not an obstacle or a waste of investment.

On the other hand, the chairman of ISRO, K Radhakrishnan, has pointed out the way in which satellite development technology benefits all people, for example satellite communications, remote-sensing satellites, usefulness of satellites in disaster-management (most recently in the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ that hit the state of Uttarakhand in northeastern India) and so on.

On the issue of whether India was in a space race with China, his reply was direct: ‘We are not in race with anyone. We are in race with ourselves. ISRO’s satellites are people-centric and application-centric. I can proudly say space has brought many services to the country… In fact, this (Mars mission) is the right priority.’ Given its scientific and technological objectives, there will undoubtedly be beneficial fallouts that may not be apparent at this early stage.

It is true that with this launch, India joins the select group of countries that have so far conducted Mars missions: the US, Russia and Europe. Attempted missions by Japan and China have failed, and there is still a long way to go for MOM: it is only in September 2014 that the satellite will be placed in the orbit of Mars to begin its observations, and that by far is probably the biggest challenge that awaits it. So it’s still early days for the Mars Orbiter.

The next challenge is for it to be given sufficient speed by the PSLV – Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle – as the latter is raised to higher orbits (6 in all) around the Earth and then thrusts the Mars Orbiter towards the red planet, escaping from the Earth’s gravitational pull. This will happen ‘at 12.42 am on December 1, the orbiter will leave the earth’s orbit for a 300-day journey to the red planet,’ as the ISRO chairman said, adding that ‘It’s only the beginning; bigger challenges are ahead. We expect the orbiter to be in Mars’s orbit on September 24, 2014.’

Collaboration in space exploration

It would be recalled that the US was taken completely unawares when the USSR launched the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, and a rivalry began between the two superpowers. According to information available on the web, in a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, President John Kennedy expressed a concern that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in technology and prestige. He challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. This happened on July 20, 1969, when Commander Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, and uttered the famous words ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’

This rivalry no doubt acted as a stimulus to speed up the race between these two countries. But today they collaborate in space exploration, for example their crews have been working together, along with astronauts from other countries, on the Soviet-built Soyuz International Space Station.

Who knows that the Chinese and Indians, who are currently engaged in joint anti-terrorism exercises to face a threat that is of major and increasing concern to both their countries (one took place last week in Tianamen Square in Beijing, and two days ago perhaps another one opposite the Communist Party Headquarters in a big city), may some day in a not too distant future similarly carry out joint missions or perform joint experiments on Mars?

Just like Edward Snowden notwithstanding, America and the Soviet Union are no longer the bitter enemies that they were during the time of the Cold War. Haven’t they cooperated recently on the protocol regarding the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria? One cannot predict how the relations between competing superpowers may pan out in future.

Great achievement

As an Indian journalist wrote: ‘By any standard it is a great achievement. It is a technologically huge challenge to make a small, 1,350 kg-class satellite to go 25 crore kilometres and study another planet of the solar system. It is a challenge, also, to use a small rocket to launch it in such a way that the Earth is used as a slingshot to power the satellite on its way to Mars. It is a challenge to have achieved this in Rs. 450 crore. It is a challenge to design a mission with just 15 kg of scientific instruments, 470 kg of other instruments that can do good science. It is a challenge to get it up and done within 15 months flat.’

Ample details about MOM are available online for anyone keen to know more. An interesting detail about ISRO’s chairman was let out: he is fond of devotional music and is an accomplished Kathakali dancer. Further, during the reporting of the event in the Indian media, mention was made on a number of times about the book Men are from Mars Women are from Venus by American author John Gray, its central theme being that men and women are fundamentally different and live in different worlds or planets, echoing somewhat Rudyard Kipling’s ‘East is East and West is West, the twain shall never meet.’ But men and women met and worked successfully together in the MOM project, as was pointed out by a high-ranking lady scientist who took part in it.

Perhaps Indians should be less cynical about their country and take just pride in its lofty achievements, as much as they should continue to be vehemently but more constructively critical about its woes and dysfunctions. The success so far of the MOM project shows that when Indian wants, it can. It should want more, and on more fronts. That will be good thing not only for India but for the world too.

* Published in print edition on 8 November 2013

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