01 Oct 18

To Go Boldly Where Many Have Gone Before

  • It is in India’s interest for ISRO to replicate Mangalyaan’s success with Gaganyaan’s human mission by 2022, and prepare for the next milestone: an Indian crew on the moon.

Against the setting November sun of 1963, a streak of dense vapour pierced through the coconut tree-lined silhouette of the Thumba seashore in Kerala.

Transported in parts by bicycles and bullock carts to the launch site, assembled lovingly by hand for the countdown, unknown to all but a few, what went up was India’s first rocket. What it left in its wake was a trail that redefined our modern history.

India had catapulted into space age.

A year earlier, when asked whether India could ever manage the Sputnik Miracle, Homi Bhabha, the Father of the Indian Nuclear Program had replied: We are on the same ground floor as the western nations. They are leading us by only about four to five years. It therefore stands to reason that within ten to twenty years we must be able to equal them.

The so-called ground floor activities had been two men, Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, roaming round the earth’s orbit; and NASA putting together the Apollo Mission, an ambitious programme dreamt by President Kennedy – to put a man on the moon.

On the twenty-first of November, as jubilant Indian scientists gawked at the shimmering arc across the ruddy sky, they would have had Bhabha’s inspiring words at the back of their minds. India had joined a select band of nations; it had entered the brave new world. This was her champagne moment.

Fate had other plans. The magnificent Indians and their flying machine never made it to the front pages the next day, for the man who had imagined a brave new world, Aldous Leonard Huxley, had been found dead; and the man who had imagined a man on the moon, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been assassinated. In the space of twenty-four hours the world had changed irrevocably. But promises had to be kept.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has, since that momentous day, secured an eminent place in world’s elite club of space science. Homi Bhabha made it sound doable and Vikram Sarabhai did it. He had a church-mouse budget compared to the billions set aside for NASA by the Americans scorched by Sputnik’s success. Instead, what Sarabhai possessed was a lion-hearted determination to build an India that would not depend on “acquiring black boxes from abroad”.

Sarabhai was clear that he was not dreaming “the dream of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight”. His goal was to enable self-reliance by building national capability in satellite communication, remote sensing, weather prediction, natural disaster management, and much more. All these would have a direct impact on real world problems faced by an average Indian.

A world away from the ice-clinking put-downs of ‘rocket-science’ as a plaything for grown-up boys itching to stand-up to bullies of a fairer complexion, space technology touches our daily life in more ways than one can imagine. Underneath the grand visuals of rocket-launches and rovers landing on extra-terrestrial surfaces, visuals that doubtless precipitate national pride, lies a string of futurist inventions – sturdier materials, smarter electronics, and innovative life-support systems to sustain human life in unfavourable environment; and when these breakthroughs begin to supplement our daily lives – as sooner or later they do – they pull the standard of living up by several notches. Had it not been for the Apollo moon mission, for instance, we wouldn’t have had seamless TV and radio transmission, quartz watches, tyres, water purifiers, athletic shoes, cordless tools, card swipe devices, readymade frozen foods, solar panels, weather maps, airplane safety chutes, fireproof suits, breathing-assistance apparatus, cardiac pacemakers, and countless other essentials that we now take for granted.

Half a century and 175 missions since its inception, ISRO, too, has developed a long list of remarkably economical indigenous technologies. Noteworthy also, that along this journey, it has been an organisation whose purpose transcends the glass ceilings of gender and power politics. 300 of ISRO’s technologies have been transferred or licensed to the Indian industry. These are widely used across sectors, such as chemical and speciality materials, mechanical, electronics and telecommunication, broadcasting, navigation, and optics.

ISRO is a world-beater. That it seldom comes across as one in the nation’s conscious is not its fault but ours. We remember ISRO only at countdowns; a successful lift-off means we remember ISRO a little more than a day. Then on it is back to Modi and Rahul and Mahagathbandhans. Perhaps all for the good; perhaps this is how ISRO prefers it. In the coming years, ISRO is determined to take the next epochal leap, strengthening international collaborations and at the same time expanding the coverage and bandwidth of satellite transmission in rural India as a part of the Digital India project. ISRO has set itself for as many as 22 launches in 2019, a record of nearly two every month. One among these is garnering wide-eyed attention, of Indians and the world alike. It goes by the name of Vikram.

India’s moon-lander, named Vikram (after Sarabhai, in honour of his centenary) will descend on Moon’s south pole in early 2019 as part of Chandrayan-2. ISRO has called it their most complex mission yet. On top of this, what one would imagine is a rather demanding work schedule, ISRO received an Independence Day surprise last month from none other than Prime Minister Modi (also, the Minister in charge of the Department of Space) – a declaration to put an Indian in space by 2022, making India the fourth country in the world to have run human missions, and the second in Asia after China. “It came as a surprise to us,” said ISRO Chief K Sivan to the scientific journal Nature.

One can question if their newest mission, Gaganyaan, stands true to ISRO’s guiding philosophy. Truth be told, it is a vanity project, revived possibly to stir-up a strong nationalist sentiment ahead of the 2019 general elections, a sentiment echoed by the former chief scientist of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Dr Gauhar Raza. “It would be ludicrous not to look at Modi’s pronouncement as an upcoming 2019 election speech rather than as a road map for India’s space programme,” he told Nature. Would Sarabhai have approved of it as a meaningful pursuit leading to technology spin-offs, or would he have seen it as an expensive show of India’s technological muscle power in the international space race? One cannot of course be certain. That said, Sarabhai, the non-conformist that he was, may have backed it – both for the resulting technological benefits and the strategically favourable position the mission would put India in with regard to security and defence preparedness.

For those unaware, the so-called Great Game has been played since the time Kipling coined the very phrase in Kim. Then the players were Britain and France; soon it would be India and China. The quest for playground supremacy among powerful nations has turned into a game of musical chairs, but with a difference: When the music stops no one removes a chair. There is no attrition for those who are too big to fail. Nations get cartelised; and India desires – some feel needs – to be in that cartel. Space science will again become an essential derivative in the ever-evolving power equation.

A week ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement, the White House administration spoke of the need for a Space Force, as space that was “once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial”. The context for this unprecedented declaration was not only China’s ramped-up efforts in space science – and the attempt at destroying one of her own satellites by a powerful missile, but also President Putin’s announcement of Russia’s aggravated weapons programme in April of this year. World War 3 might well be fought with sticks and stones but preparations, it appears, are underway for World War 2.5. Carl Sagan would be rolling in his grave, thinking “what was the point of it all, the pale blue dot as a reminder of our privileges. The rivers of blood spilled by those generals and emperors of the past to become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot may now extend outside our dot into the vast cosmic arena.”

Today, the US Space Command falls under the US Strategic Command of the Defence Department. The US Department of Defence and the Pentagon have been directed to begin formalities towards establishing an independent force, pending Congress’ legislative assent. Space Force, if constituted, would be the sixth military arm of the US, with air force fighters specializing in the domain of space. The announcement has invited a mix of ridicule and wonder within the US, with many questioning the need to formalise a Space Force when the function is performed already by a special command of the US air force. Some have called it nothing but a tactic straight out of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign manager’s toolbox, the very person who recently floated a mass poll to choose a Space Force logo from among six designs. Russia, meanwhile, is alarmed by this announcement. So also should the entire world. Any such attempt, notwithstanding the motive being of a defensive or an offensive nature, stands in violation of the United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty, that expressly prohibits placement and use of weapons in outer space or the moon and other celestial bodies. Space is not to be subjected to national appropriation or claims of sovereignty. Any effort by a signatory nation to turn rogue has to be thwarted by the rest, not just by diplomacy but, rather, by establishing equivalence in technical prowess. Given India’s habitually weak-kneed efforts in international diplomacy, it is quite possible we have opted for the latter option.

We are going boldly where many have gone before, but we have reasons to; and some of these reasons may never be made public because they involve defence and our security, probably our very existence.

On the peaceful, scientific front, given President Trump’s latest proclamation of “space as the next great American frontier, to be settled with American leadership, courage, and values”, the first half of 2018 has seen investments of more than a billion US dollars into space start-ups in the Unites States. NASA’s moon mission, that had been well and truly laid to rest with the completion of the Apollo project in 1972, has now been resurrected on the American President’s strategic directive. NASA, along with a handful of private space tech companies, has begun working on setting up a permanent outpost for humans on the moon, to accomplish its multi-fold objective: of returning humans to the Moon by 2020, and to create a gateway for travel to Mars and beyond. The outpost, named the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, is envisioned to give America a strategic position in the cis-lunar space. The plan is to have the Gateway lodge four astronauts and serve as a hub for robotic and crewed exploration of the moon. Needless to mention, a mountain of new science would be developed to realise deep space exploration and dominance.

Another resolve of the business-minded Trump camp is to redirect NASA’s mission to “large-scale economic development of space”. This could include mining, space tourism, and other industries of the future. NASA is partnering more than ever before the private space industry, with a vision to privatize low-orbit Earth – that is, to “enable transition from government-owned and operated stations to privately-owned and operated space stations”. Under the space industrialisation initiative, two US companies have announced their lunar missions already. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has revealed its first tourist flight, an art mission, Dear Moon, that will carry aboard a handful of artists. Moon Express, another private company owned by Naveen Jain, has received formal approval to begin mining missions on moon. They are expected to set-up a lunar materials plant on the moon to aid off-earth manufacturing of satellites instead of launching them from Earth. Maxar, yet another private company has been awarded the contract by NASA to study the potential of establishing commercial manufacturing operations in space so as to build satellites.

The writing is on the wall. It is in India’s interest for ISRO to become a tech-equal in the Space Club, replicate Mangalyaan’s success with Gaganyaan’s human mission by 2022, and prepare for the next milestone: an Indian crew on the moon. With its well-established and globally appreciated launch capabilities, an ISRO launch site on the moon would go a long way in shaping our future. Thumba Tranquillitatis.

Space is no longer the final frontier and its exploration no longer a luxury we cannot afford. Winter is coming.

This article first appeared in swarajya on Oct. 1, 2018.

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