More than 48 hours have passed by now and news about the health of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Vikram lander is not very good. The lander appears to have made a hard-landing because of which, possibly, ISRO is not able to establish any contact. Still, ISRO has not given up and they propose to keep on trying for 11 to 12 days — when sunlight would be available on the Moon’s surface, providing energy for the lander.
There have been occasions in the past when declared “dead” satellites/space probes have suddenly come alive. One recent case is that of NASA’s IMAGE satellite (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration), launched in early 2000. The spacecraft stopped transmitting in late 2005, and NASA declared the satellite dead. But an amateur astronomer stumbled upon a signal from this satellite after many years and NASA declared this satellite alive again, on January 20, 2018, when it successfully collected telemetry data from the satellite.
As per NASA, the apparent “zombie” satellite was one of a series of nine satellites — LES1 to LES9 — launched on February 11, 1965. Actually, it never reached the correct orbit. In 2013, an amateur radio astronomer from the UK picked up a signal that was later determined as coming from LES1. However, these activities have happened in the Earth orbit. We have no such experiences from the Moon orbit.
Obviously, “hope against hope” is going to be ISRO’s policy for at least the next one lunar day (12 Earth days). Today, and rightfully so, the entire country stands with ISRO. The average citizen understands that ISRO has been sincere in its approach. For all these years, with various successes in the domain of space, ISRO has raised the stature of the country internationally: Naturally, in this difficult period it is the responsibility of every Indian to keep ISRO’s motivation levels high. At the same time, it is also important to do some critical assessment of where India stands in the domain of space. For this, it is important to make an assessment of the technical resources and expertise available with ISRO in order to carry forward a major space programme, and of the nature of likely governmental funding available for these purposes. It is also important to factor in the nature of the private space industry which can support a space programme of this size. In addition to all this, international collaborations have become an important element in the present times. The government needs to carry out a detailed assessment of all these aspects.
More importantly, there should be clarity about why India should invest in space. Actually, our forefathers had thought about it very wisely: India’s investments in space should be made bearing socio-economic development in mind — that was the mantra then, and that stands true even today. At present, space technology has become so important that the daily lives of human beings get affected and are, consequently, governed by it.
Nationalist ideology may continue to shape global politics even today. However, India should avoid getting into this trap, particularly with programmes related to science and technology. Space science is important for human growth. It is not a domain for any flaunting. Going to the Moon and Mars is important for multiple reasons, including the quest for minerals and energy security (Helium 3). India should, thus, avoid getting swayed by rhetoric such as the “Space Race”.
Space should emerge as an important constituent of foreign policy. Missions like those to the Moon and Mars offer India prime opportunities for bilateral or multilateral collaboration. There are indications, in fact, that Chandrayaan 3 could be a joint mission with Japan, and this is an idea that needs to be welcomed. Such collaborations could allow technology sharing and they could also prove to be more cost-effective and time-saving.
India needs to make more investments in its strategic programme: Efforts made to conduct an ASAT (anti-satellite test) should not remain one-off attempts, and should be capitalised upon. Today, the armed forces require many more satellites for various purposes and ISRO just cannot be overloaded with this task. There is a need to evolve a separate agency for this purpose.
The problem with Chandrayaan 2 has presented an opportunity to have a relook at the priorities for India’s space agenda. A fresh audit could be done of ISRO’s various future programmes. In fact, in the future, money and manpower are going to emerge as major issues and, hence, this is the time to undertake exercises of prioritisation. And, to reiterate, investments in this domain should be done only for social reasons, for science and for security. If India has to emerge as a space power, then it should be via a combination of soft and hard power. Missions like the ones to the Moon offer such opportunities.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 11, 2019 under the title ‘Bright side of the moon’. The writer is a senior fellow at IDSA, New Delhi.