This also is India!

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

For nearly a month now the world was being reminded (through essays, articles, photo galleries and many other public events such as interviews of scientists and former cosmonauts) of the success and legacy of the American Apollo 11 mission which for the first time in human history saw a man, Neil Armstrong, landing on the moon on July 21, 1969. As if to coincide with this historic event 50 years ago, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on last Monday July 22 successfully launched a mission to the moon, placing the satellite Chandrayaan 2 into orbit around the earth on its journey towards the moon, which it is due to reach on September 7.

Not unexpectedly, there have been some criticisms against India to the effect, among others, that it should rather tackle its poverty/sanitation issues rather than spend big money on such prestige projects. Such opinions were expressed too about the Apollo 11 mission, as pointed out in a write-up in the New York Times science magazine on July 21, 2019.

The author, Alan Birk, wrote that ‘Apollo unfolded during one of the most turbulent periods in our nation’s history. Many Americans felt strongly that other concerns — poverty, education, civil rights — should take precedence. Polls put the space program at or near the top of the list of federal programs that people thought should be abolished’ – even as he reminded the world that ‘At 2:56 a.m. Coordinated Universal Time on July 21, 1969, humans for the first time stepped onto another world. It was a kind of awakening. More than 500 million people around the world watched the event live on television — still the biggest broadcast audience in history — and tens of millions more listened on the radio. All with the same perspective: of the moon, symbol of the unattainable, attained; and of our own Earth, a pale blue dot in the vast emptiness of space.’

What that moment symbolized was captured in the following words: ‘The mission’s success nonetheless became synonymous with our potential as a species… If we could put a man on the moon, we could accomplish anything. Fifty or five hundred years from now, may it stand as a reminder of what is possible: We could, and we did, together’ (italics added).

All the four countries that have accomplished moon missions – the USA, Russia, China and India – have their share of upheavals that have marked their past with spillover into the present. For the USA of the 1960s, as Lionel Shiver reminds us in the UK publication The Spectator of 27 April 2019, ‘everything was shameful’: its ‘shallow consumerism, environmental rapacity, worship of money, racism, political assassinations, its catastrophic involvement in Vietnam’.

Equally shameful was its past: ‘slavery, the massacre of Native Americans, the arrogance of manifest destiny.’ But all this and the other tremors that have since been rocking America – financial crisis of 2008, gun violence and mass shootings, the acute migrant crisis, etc. – have not prevented the country from making spectacular scientific, technological and scientific breakthroughs which have not only added to the sum total of human knowledge, but also led to applications which have benefited all of mankind. Including too, so many further space exploration projects.

China has had its Cultural Revolution with its nearly 20 million deaths, and its Tiananmen Square massacre; Russia had its Bolshevik Revolution and its Stalinist gulag. And in all of these countries, there are still many social asymmetries including poverty, but that has not prevented their onward march in advancing science, technology and medicine as the USA has done.

So why single out India unfairly? Its scientists and professionals are also contributing to these domains even if this is on a more modest scale, but it all adds up to the existing pool of human achievements. As Jyotsna, daughter of the founder of India’s space programme Vikram Sarabhai, and herself a renowned molecular biologist, replied when asked in an interview whether she would feel proud as an Indian when the Indian flag would be laid on the moon, she said she would feel more proud as a human being because the findings from the explorations and experiments to be carried out by Chandrayaan 2 on the moon would belong to all of humanity as they would be shared with the scientific community at large.

This is the spirit in which we must look at the Chandrayaan 2 and future missions that are planned rather than carp and peddle blinkered views.

There are several reasons for saluting what a scientist from the American space agency NASA described as a picture-perfect launch, among which a few firsts: it was accomplished by totally indigenous means, it was led by two women scientists as Mission Director and Project Director respectively, the Moon Rover will land on the South Pole of the moon which has not been explored so far.

What is more remarkable is that despite all the obstacles put in their way, the ISRO scientists persevered and went on to develop the cryogenic engine that was absolutely essential for launching vehicles weighing more than 1.4 tons, which its earlier GSLV versions could not do. Details are available on the website of Forbes India magazine*, but essentially, as N.S. Ramnath wrote in June 2010 – ‘Cryogenic Technology: The India Story | Forbes India’- ‘Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Glavkosmos, the Soviet Union space agency, had agreed to transfer cryogenic engines and technology to ISRO.

But very few countries have access to cryogenics and those who do, guard it zealously. The US, Europe, Japan and China are averse to sharing. The Russians of course made an exception for India. India and the USSR said cryogenic technology was strictly for non-military uses… In 1991, the Bush (senior) administration invoked the Missile Technology Control Regime…to impose sanctions on the Soviet and Indian space agencies… India decided to fight back — by developing its own cryogenic technology’.

And this is how India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle GSLV MkIII-M1, successfully launched the 3840 kg Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft into an earth orbit on July 22, 2019, one week after the launch was aborted 56 minutes before lift-off (because of a technical hitch in the cryogenic engine which was resolved within hours). This took place at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh at the scheduled launch time of 2:43 p.m. Indian Standard Time (IST). About 16 minutes 14 seconds after lift-off, the vehicle injected Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft into an elliptical earth orbit. Immediately after spacecraft separation from the vehicle, the solar array of the spacecraft automatically got deployed and ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC), Bengaluru successfully took control of the spacecraft.

ISRO Chairman Dr K Sivan congratulated the launch vehicle and satellite teams involved in this challenging mission. Indeed, from its very beginnings, ISRO scientists have been functioning as an integrated team with the collaboration of several industries, working with professionalism and dedication that explain the success of all its projects. As one observer put it about the technical hitch, it was not a failure, only a setback. And in any endeavour of this magnitude, there are bound to be setbacks – but keeping focus on the goal ahead, all of them have been overcome as they arose. By all accounts, ISRO is a model to be emulated in India certainly, but perhaps elsewhere too why not.

If only the rest of India – especially its politics – were to perform as efficiently, one can only imagine what kind of potential that would unleash, as a part of the ‘potential as a species’ noted above in relation to the Apollo 11. There is hope that under the current dispensation, this may well come to be. Jai Hind.


* Published in print edition on 26 July 2019

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