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Breaking down news: To the Moon and Back

As the launch of Chandrayaan-2 made headlines, the race to put humans back on the lunar surface is qualitatively different 50 years later.

Breaking down news: To the Moon and Back This week, the successful launch of Chandrayaan-2 made headlines the world over. (ISRO/PTI)

The leitmotif of the week is relentless rocketry in Asia. In an attempt to inspire shock and awe — or irritable consternation, at least — Kim Jong Un tested two unidentified missiles. Earlier, in May, two missiles had been launched from the Hodo Peninsula, and India had a role to play in tracking them. CNN had exclusive satellite footage of the incident from Planet Labs of San Francisco, probably filmed by satellites launched by Isro’s PSLV C37 in February last year. Of the record 104 satellites that went to orbit, 88 were Planet Labs’ Dove mini satellites. It was the largest satellite fleet ever launched.

But that’s by the way. Diplomatically, this is a huge embarrassment for the Trump administration, which is already fighting a ridiculous war of nerves with Iran over its nuclear weapons programme. It had confidently asserted that Washington had forced North Korea’s missile programme to self-destruct, and had propagated videos of test facilities being demolished with explosives. But the missile tests continued, and CNN declares the latest to be “the first since Trump entered North Korea”. That ‘entered’ is such an unusual choice. Wonder if the headliner over in Atlanta is a Machiavelli fan, and is artfully applying the sublime to the ridiculous. The phrasing is so like a much-quoted passage in Chapter 13 of Il Principe, which concerns the unreliability of auxiliaries: “I shall never hesitate to cite Cesare Borgia and his actions. This duke entered the Romagna with auxiliaries, taking there only French soldiers…”, who were promptly replaced by mercenaries, because cash down is always a safer bet.

But Asia has more to offer than nuclear missiles. This week, the successful launch of Chandrayaan-2 made headlines the world over. Apart from routine coverage and the expected footage of the blastoff, the BBC focused on the women scientists behind the mission. But the most perceptive coverage was done by Al Jazeera, which noted that 50 years after Apollo 11, the race to put humans back on the lunar surface is qualitatively different: “A global race is in hyperdrive to stake both national and commercial claims to the lunar surface — and to what’s below and even beyond it.”

Good heavens, they’re talking colonialism. A new kind of colonialism, squeaky clean and victimless, since there are no indigenous people to be swept aside, as was the case in the Wild West and Australia, or to be subdued, as in South Asia and large parts of Africa. The claim is not unwarranted, as the enabling conditions are similar.

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In the age of exploration, Europeans were not limited by law determining ownership of territory and resources elsewhere, leaving them free to claim whatever they made landfall on for European royalty, which invested in their ventures. Now, space law and UN agreements define the moon to be the province of humankind, and activities on the moon must be for the benefit of all. But moon projects will obviously not work as global charities. The stakes are sky-high and nations which have signed these agreements — or entrepreneurs who are not bound by them — may seek advantage. For instance, in 1972, Apollo 17 brought back lunar regolith containing Helium-3, a possible future source of safe fusion energy. Whoever takes first mover advantage stands to make a killing, even if it sells the isotope to all nations at tiny margins. Until such acts are contested and case law develops, the law of space is high-minded but toothless.

But the most publicised launch of the week was that of Boris Johnson. While the Brexit question has been widely regarded as a national disaster, following Johnson’s ascension to the party leadership, there is a spate of comments to the effect that it is the biggest challenge that the UK has faced since World War II. And the EU health commissioner has compared him to the other Boris in Russia, “in terms of fact distortion, reality falsification and blunt oblivions of reality”. In fact, he is being ironically addressed as Yeltsin was in Russia: “Boris, ti ne prav! (Boris, you’re not true!)” Not surprising, for England’s blond answer to Trump lost his first job as a journalist with the London Times for getting stuff wrong.

Back in the neighbourhood, the space race is hotting up, though it wasn’t widely reported here. On Thursday, Pakistan minister for science and technology Fawad Hussain promised to send a Pakistani to space in 2022. The long-list of 50 candidate astronauts will open in February next year. Though his commitment to promoting science and technology is appreciated, this particular announcement was met with general disbelief. Jungjoo Gernail, one of Pakistan’s finest social media wags commented, “Greatly pleased to announce Pak fauj shall soon be grabbing corner plots in space. Nara-e-takbeer!”

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

First published on: 27-07-2019 at 10:27:07 am
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