The Tricolour on Mars

The Tricolour on Mars

Mangalyaan’s success signals, irrevocably, undeniably, proudly, that India has arrived at the cutting edge of space technology.

Rightful euphoria engulfs us as the Mangalyaan mission to planet Mars launched in November 2013 keeps its date with the Martian orbit.  Let it be said loud and clear that India, as its craft enters successfully the Martian atmosphere, has become the first nation to succeed in entering the Martian orbit in the very first attempt.

The real start for all these happened during the first anniversary of Pokharan-II.  It was a passing remark by Dr K. Kasturirangan, then chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), in Delhi on May 11, 1999, that actually triggered the chain of events which ultimately culminated in the two milestones in Indian space research in less than one decade. That simple sentence was “India has the capability to undertake a mission to the moon.”

The statement made a deep impact on the then Union Minister for Science and Technology Dr Murli Manohar Joshi.  After the lecture, the physicist-minister asked the space scientist if he could materialize what he had declared on the podium. When Kasturirangan nodded in affirmation, Joshi promised all help from his government.  The project was analyzed in all its details before it was decided to give a full go ahead. In his 2003 August 15th speech, the then Prime Minister announced to the world that India would launch its moon programme—he called it Chandrayaan (Sanskrit for ‘moon-craft’).

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating the ISRO Chairman, Dr. K Radhakrishnan.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating the ISRO Chairman, Dr. K Radhakrishnan.

Both Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for ‘Mars-craft’) have something in common with another scheme that comes from the same era. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was a scheme conceived in 1999, as a national mission to achieve universal primary education.  But what can high-flying space missions have in common with the ground-level fight against illiteracy and school dropout percentage?

It is a well ingrained Indian ethos.

Kopillil Radhakrishnan, the chairman of ISRO, explained how his organization made Mangalyaan the world’s least-expensive Mars probe. Dismissing the phrase ‘frugal engineering’ which has been widely and increasingly used by Western media, he stated: “ISRO’s general philosophy is cost-effectiveness. The Russians look for robustness and the Americans go after optimization. Our aim at ISRO was how do we get to Mars on a budget.” Yes. It is cost-effectiveness that is the connecting string between Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. In the words of Dr Joshi who conceived the SSA, “The basic thrust will be to come up with innovative techniques. Low-cost teachers from the community can make a school. The buildings can come up later.”

Cost-effectiveness permeates almost all aspects of Indian technological innovations. In India, wireless technologies have been developed to connect rural uses with switch exchanges at low costs, thus opening up rural areas.

ISRO’s @MarsOrbiter tweets its arrival into mars orbit!
ISRO’s @MarsOrbiter tweets its arrival into mars orbit!

The cost-effective designing of Indian technologists can change the way space research is being conducted. One of the important programmes of ISRO is also the most innovative of ISRO’s near-future projects: scramjet Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) which has been named Avatar. The Avatar is a hyperplane vehicle that can take off from conventional airfields, collect air in the atmosphere on the way up, liquefy it, separate oxygen and store it on board for subsequent flight beyond the atmosphere.

The Avatar-RLV was first announced in May 1998 at the Aero India 98 exhibition held at Bangalore. Avatar can give India a great edge in global space research. Gregory Benford, astrophysicist at the University of California and an advisor to NASA and the White House Council on Space Policy, has said that the Avatar RLV project will enable India to leap ahead of Chinese and once the low-cost-to-orbit comes alive, it will drive cheaper methods of doing all our unmanned activities in space.

In the 1960s, Vikram Sarabhai, the architect of the Indian Space Programme, observed:

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.

When in 2014, we look back with pride at the way we have become a serious player in global space programmes, we should also remember that actually ISRO has contributed vastly and innovatively to the problems humanity faces down at the earth.

In fact, ISRO has the largest such human development-oriented contribution by any space agency—even those of highly developed nations with huge budgets. Cost-effectiveness and humanity-oriented research are the hallmarks of the Indian Space Research Organization. Hence its successes are the successes of a civilization that is, after centuries of subjugation, claiming its rightful place in the world and is becoming a guiding inspiration to the developing previously colonized countries.

Humanity’s spread to Mars is an important game changer for species survival. With India’s arrival at the Martian orbit, space technology has been really globally democratized. Now the previously colonized nations, which are tactically called ‘developing countries’, can attempt daring innovative cost-effective space adventures. The probe will study the Martian surface for minerals and atmosphere for methane.  Mangalyaan’s success signals, irrevocably, undeniably, proudly, that India has arrived at the cutting edge of space technology.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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