Country's space missions cost only a fraction of the money set aside for social welfare

by Ravi Menon

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission has received so much of media coverage (and rightly so) that India’s Chandrayaan 2, the country’s most ambitious space mission has lost some of its initial glow. But after the last-minute scrubbing of the launch, at T-56.23, and now with the new launch date announced — July 22 at 2.43 pm — Chandrayaan 2 is back in the news. There is lot riding on that rocket, not just the rover and lander, it is taking a billion dreams to the moon.

The New York Times writing before the mission was aborted said ‘India’s shooting for the Moon, and the country is pumped and …. many Indians feel this mission and what it wants to accomplish 200,000 miles away will be a turning point in their country’s history’. Curiously enough, earlier to this, the Times’ Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor, was forced into an apology for its cartoon, published alongside an article titled India’s Budget Mission to Mars just after India’s Mars orbiter, the Mangalyaan was launched. It showed a farmer with a cow knocking at the door of a room marked Elite Space Club where two men sit reading a newspaper on India’s feat.

India has an established scientific tradition, therefore has some obligation to conduct blue sky research but more importantly, India’s space programmes from the beginning has had strong linkages to social development. - Ravi Menon

India’s space story, has all the elements to keep you riveted, it has a plot, it has characters larger than life, and the narrative thread is inspiring and it has also had its share of failures. ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), India’s Nasa, its first head Vikram Sarabhai and another legendary leader Satish Dhawan loom large in any telling of India’s space odyssey. And ISRO (the all- conquering hero in the story) has had its heartbreaks, visceral botches, and primarily rooted in mastering cryogenic technology. This is India’s Achilles heel and even this decision to abort is linked to leaks in a nipple joint of the helium gas bottle attached to the rocket. The ISRO story also has that distinctive ring of ‘Indianness’ wrapped around it; the book cover design is pure desi (a poor translation meaning, steeped in Indian culture). And not just in name likes, Aryabhata, Rohini, Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan. Each of these are key milestones, and mark India’s space journey, but they also signify an Indian way of thinking to space explorations. The Hindi word Jugaad (an inventive fix) comes to mind in all things Indian, unsparingly even in space missions. Yes, frugality and being smart has always been the hall mark of Indian ways of doing things but with ISRO, this inventiveness reaches an altogether new level. India has rewritten some of the standard procedures when it comes to space projects.

Scroll’s How India created the world’s cheapest Mars mission is a must read to understand ISRO and its unique management skills and deft use of economies of scale. Indians have specialised in ‘how to do more with less as an art form’ in space missions. ISRO for example follows an older and better-tested method called the Hohmann transfer orbit. In simple terms, what this means is that, ISRO, whirled Mangalyaan around the Earth six times before flinging it into space towards its destination. Anybody who has used a slingshot can imagine the number of ways this could go wrong. But over the years ISRO has mastered this and it has a stellar record. The advantage of the sling shot is that it can get the job done with less powerful rockets, consequently launch costs dip dramatically.

India’s space ambitions have also been dogged by ‘should India be spending such large sums of money on space missions when 40 per cent of children are malnourished’? The Wire’s Why Poverty First, Moon Next, is an Absurd Argument answers these and points out that India spends on space missions a fraction of the money set aside for social welfare schemes. Next, India has an established scientific tradition (in theoretical research and in pure sciences like mathematics and physics) therefore has some obligation to conduct blue sky research but more importantly, India’s space programs from the beginning has had strong linkages to social development. Nearly the only thing India did for many decades after putting eyes in the sky was to help understand and predict the weather, monitor the consequences of natural disasters, prospect for natural resources to extract and redistribute, enable newer communication channels, and improve access to education and healthcare in remote parts of the country.

As we inch closer to launch date all that one can say is that if Chandrayaan 2 makes that soft landing (a huge ask given all that can go wrong) near the moon’s south pole, India would have taken a giant leap in its quest for a seat in the Elite Space Club and all that on a shoe-string budget.