Special Editorial : ISRO eclipses the high and mighty

They said, ‘A nation so poor, a challenge so great’
Her children toiled diligently, to keep this tryst with fate

The Moon governs or rules the mind, according to Vedic astrology. Truly, over the last few days, the Chandrayaan – 3 lander was the only thing that ruled 140 crore minds. The untiring efforts of the ISRO scientists, prayers of crores of Indians, and various rituals bore fruit when the Vikram lander successfully touched down on the lunar surface. India is now only the fourth nation after the erstwhile USSR, the USA and China to successfully softly put a man-made object on the Moon. India, however, has the distinction of being the first to successfully touch down on the Moon’s South Pole.

This achievement is no mean feat

India’s achievement is special in multiple ways. The total cost of the Chandrayaan-3 mission is estimated to be Rs 615 crores or USD 74 million. This is considerably lower than the budget of some space-themed Hollywood movies. Gravity, a 2013 movie about a stranded astronaut’s thrilling struggle to reach Earth safely, was made on a budget of Rs 644 crores. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s 2014 movie on space exploration and the search for inhabitable planets, Interstellar, cost a whopping Rs 1370 crores. But then again, these were science-fiction movies, aimed to entertain, with elements of science mixed in for good measure. There was no real danger involved, except for them to turn out to be box office duds. Chandrayaan is a real-life mission. The mission’s success shows the scientific prowess of the Indian scientific community.

It is a time for celebration. But we must not forget those who ridiculed India and her space programme. India had just launched the Mars Orbiter Mission (the Mangalyaan). While the world was lauding India’s achievement, the New York Times published a distasteful cartoon in its article India’s Budget Mission to Mars. It showed a dhoti-clad man with a cow knocking on the doors of an ‘Elite Space Club’ filled with white men in suits. No doubt, people complained, forcing the New York Times to issue an apology. The world, especially India’s detractors, watched with awe as Indian scientists achieved the unique feat of interplanetary travel on a shoestring budget. Kudos to ISRO, which has repeated this feat with Chandrayaan now.

Chandrayaan-3 has opened up a vast research avenue. The Pragyan Rover will roll out from the Vikram Lander. Its mission objectives include investigating the lunar surface for the presence of ice, water, oxygen, and minerals. The USA and China are planning manned Moon missions in the near future. Pragyan’s mission will benefit these future manned missions. The data will help pave the way for possible colonisation of the lunar surface. However, it is pertinent to mark the distinction between India’s space programme and that of the other nations. The other nations are driven by a philosophy of ‘expand and exploit’. Their missions are all about extracting and exploiting natural resources, be it on the Moon or Mars. Indian philosophy, on the flip side, is all about learning about nature, respecting it, and utilising it judiciously with gratitude. So we can safely say that ISRO or India will refrain from such exploitative missions.

The mission is beneficial to the common-man

Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, (2nd from left) Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation

The humungous success of Chandrayaan-3 belongs to the 21 ISRO allied institutes spread across the nation. These institutes have written a new chapter in the history of Indian Space Exploration, under the able leadership of Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation. However, there are those like the BBC, who have raised questions about India’s space programmes. Each time an Indian mission succeeds, these detractors will question a ‘poor country’s need to spend millions on space missions, while hunger and sanitation remain unresolved issues’. These missions are not wasteful expenditures. Over the last 70 years, there have been over 100 missions to the Moon. Of these only a few met with success. However, each mission taught us something, and that knowledge made enormous contributions to everyday life. The same can be expected from Chandrayaan – 3 as well. The complex mathematical calculations, application of physics, material science, and engineering designs employed in the making of a space mission have generated knowledge that has translated into everyday appliances like the vacuum cleaner. Precision guidance technology used in aircraft, the GPS, pacemakers, digital camera sensors, and even the internet, are unintended by-products of space exploration. The second advantage is that India’s feat is certain to provide a boost to India’s soft power. This will translate into positive changes in international politics, trade, and economy.

The USA, the European Union and other nations have opened up the space race to private players in a bid to offset costs and create a competitive atmosphere. ISRO has set up IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center) under the GoI’s Department of Space. This will facilitate the entry of private players from India. The success of Chandrayaan – 3 will provide an impetus to this programme. This will certainly boost the number of youth who take up STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. Congratulations to every Indian for daring to dream big and achieving it.

The ‘Vikram’ established by ‘Chandrayaan-3’ once again showed the world the brilliance of Indian intellect and ingenuity!