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Friday, July 10, 2020

Aiming for the moon

Instead of counselling fiscal prudence, let’s ask for more funds for space projects

Written by Abhishek Kulkarni | Updated: August 1, 2019 12:15:47 am
indias mission to moon, chandrayaan-2, chandrayaan 2, isro, mission moon, chandrayaan 2 news, isro news, India’s second Moon mission Chandrayaan-2 lifts off onboard GSLV Mk III-M1 launch vehicle from Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. (Source: ISRO/PTI/File)

Space is the final frontier for mankind’s thirst of exploration and adventure. For all the anti-adventurists and killjoys, there are some obvious real-world applications in agriculture, telecom, weather forecasting, defence, medicine, natural resources and rare elements. Humans could become a space fairing species in another 30 years, perhaps even before if Elon Musk gets his way.

After the Apollo missions were completed, the world somehow lost interest in lunar missions. Scientists and space enthusiasts were still hopeful but public support faded away. For the next 50 years or so, a large number of the rocket launches made by the space organisations of the world were to put satellites in lower earth orbits, basically for communications and, let’s face it, for snooping on other countries. A relatively smaller number of missions were academically motivated.

The remarkable feats achieved by ISRO on July 22 and in other previous missions have made all Indians proud. Mostly because of two reasons: First, the critical parts of this mission — cryogenics, the orbiter, lander and the rover — are all indigenously developed. And second, the estimated cost of this project is Rs 978 crore only. I know putting “only” after that figure will surely raise eyebrows but do a Google search and compare it with what other space agencies have spent to achieve similar successes. Fun fact: The last Avengers movie was made at a cost of Rs 2,443 crore. It is in this context that I disagree with your editorial, ‘Another giant leap’ (IE, July 23) which counsels fiscal prudence on space missions.

Chandrayaan 2 was scheduled as early as 2011-12 in collaboration with Roskosmos. Failure in their Mars mission and following delays in the delivery of the lander forced the Russians to back out from the agreement signed on November 12, 2007. This led ISRO to develop the mission entirely in-house, which they did in a very short time. On July 15, the snag during the final countdown and the temporary cancellation of the launch may have given a reason to the international media and other space agencies to second guess India’s capabilities. But within a week, with a successful launch and that too with a very narrow launch window, ISRO made a statement, not with just words but with action.

Another example of the genius of our scientists was emphasised when they had to test the in-house made rover on a moon like surface. The moon’s surface is covered with craters, rocks and dust and its soil is of a different texture as compared to the earth’s. Importing lunar soil-like substance from the US was costly, hence ISRO decided to get “anorthosite” rocks from a couple of Tamil Nadu villages. They then crushed these rocks to the desired specifications and sent it to a test facility at Bengaluru, which resulted in huge savings. Scientists from NIT Tiruchirappalli, Periyar University, Salem and IISC Bengaluru worked on this project.

The remarkable part, however, is not the lower costs of these missions but the efficiency and the rate of success of these missions.

Though Chandrayaan 2 has been splendidly covered by The Indian Express, the conclusion of the editorial is somewhat discouraging from a scientist’s point of view.

Government spending on flagship programmes has increased several times during the past couple of decades, while their return on investment both monetarily and in terms of standard of living is sub-par. On the other hand, there are certain expenditures for which the real motivation is the misguided notion of patriotism. For example, the Statue of Unity has an estimated cost of Rs 2,966 crore and the proposed Shivaji statue is estimated to cost Rs 3,600 crore. I am not against the commemoration of our national heroes, but can we not make their memorials less extravagant and give rest of the money to institutions like ISRO, DRDO and NDMA?

In India, where most government institutions eventually end up spending more than what was initially proposed, ISRO is an exception. Immediately after this success, rather than pivoting the zeitgeist towards supporting the organisation through more funding and resources, we are cautioning the agency to set its priorities right and have asked it to show fiscal prudence. That does not seem fair.

So yes, Dear Editor, I disagree with the conclusion of your editorial.

The writer is an Aurangabad, Maharashtra-based engineer and a space research enthusiast

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