ISRO’s GSLV Mark-III rocket (ISRO)
Snapshot
  • With Chandrayaan-2 set to make a soft landing near the Moon’s south pole, here are some lessons for ISRO from Roald Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the Earth’s.

By the time you read this, Chandrayaan-2 should be in moon orbit.

This craft, assuming all goes well, will send its lander to soft-land on the moon at the unexplored South Pole, and it and the rover will send back their findings for two weeks. That would make India only the fourth power — after the US, Russia and China — to have soft-landed a craft on the moon.

Chandrayaan-1 had a (planned) hard landing.

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There are the usual two questions that follow: why is India trying to go to the moon? And how is it that India is able to do frugal (this mission costs only $150 million) and usually flawless space missions?

The first question has an obvious answer: it’s about science, prestige, and staking a claim to what National Academy of Space Administration (NASA) used to call “the Final Frontier”.

There are potential commercial reasons, including mining in space. The usual suspects like the BBC and the New York Times will ask the usual question: “There are starving Indians, why do you need a space programme?”

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The answer is that the two have nothing to do with each other. The reason for starving Indians is colonial and socialist rule, and even if we scrapped the space programme, that wouldn’t eliminate starvation.

There is another related answer: why did the colonial loot over a millennium take place? Because India didn’t defend itself. We went for the classical butter-over-guns strategy, and then those with the guns took our butter.

In addition to conventional and nuclear weapons, we need space, cyber, digital propaganda and quantum weapons now. Nobody is going to sell India advanced space technology (remember the cryogenic engine?).

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So, India might as well develop its own. This was the point of the anti-satellite (A-SAT) missile launch too: we will defend ourselves.

There is also a gold rush going on, to stake claims wherever possible. Note how China has not only captured the South China Sea, but it claims to be a ‘near-Arctic’ power.

Many countries have set up research stations in the Antarctic. The Chinese landed on the far side of the moon to stake a claim there. India cannot afford to sit back and let these competitors monopolise territory.

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Too Little Science And Too Much Engineering?

How India is doing its space missions is also interesting. I claim the main reason for Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) success is that they do pure engineering, and not science.

Even though everyone in ISRO has the designation ‘scientist’, almost nobody there does any pure science research. Which means, ISRO will never come up with a science breakthrough (and so far it has not), but it takes the less-risky approach of doing well-known technology.

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This distinction between science and engineering seems lost on us. Scientists do blue-sky research and come up with original breakthroughs. For instance, somebody at Bell Labs did the original research that resulted in the invention of the transistor, a game-changing product.

Sadly, the only original science breakthrough in India after 1947 is the prime-factorisation algorithm (Agarwal-Kayal-Saxena) from IIT Kanpur, which proves it is possible to find prime factors for any number in computationally feasible time.

This is an important theoretical result, although not computationally efficient and so not attractive from an engineering perspective.

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Engineers solve known problems. For instance, engineers figure out how to manufacture transistors in volume and at low cost, or to run an efficient prime-factoring algorithm.

Space flight is a known problem, and Indian engineers excel in providing innovative new solutions. By using ingenious mechanisms and ‘frugal engineering’, ISRO is able to run its projects at costs that are a fraction of what NASA might have spent.

But there is an issue to note here. It’s technology denial that energised ISRO; just as the denial of old Cray supercomputing technology encouraged the creation of Param supercomputers.

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The late C K Prahalad’s constraints in “the Innovation Sandbox” apply to ISRO: create something for use in India, at a cost that is 10 per cent of global costs, and work within the constraints of the Indian environment.

Thus, ISRO reverse-engineered cryogenic engine technology when denied access. This organisational ability to overcome adversity is something to be celebrated and nurtured.

Then there is the question as to why Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is unable to similarly build warplanes and tanks. A savvy aeronautical engineering professor explained this to me.

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It takes a great deal of testing and an enormous number of failures before an airframe gets to be a viable prototype. What happens in India is that DRDO, after years of setbacks, finally gets to that stage of acceptability with its latest plane, only to find the playing field has changed.

The big aircraft companies would by then have moved on to their next offering, and would be willing to do a deal on their obsolescent technology, to get a mid-life sales kicker, and also to checkmate a future competitor. They drastically reduce the price.

At that point, Defence Ministry accountants and managers run the numbers and find that the imported solution is more price-competitive. A short-term decision to ‘buy’ instead of ‘build’ dooms the Indian project, and we lose one more opportunity to do ‘Make in India’ and export weapons.

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This is why India has not managed to build its own military aircraft, although the story is better with, say, missiles. The BrahMos is in demand, and is being sold to other countries.

India has not been able to build civilian aircraft either, although Brazil has (the Embraer, with military and civilian versions); so has China. India will have to bear the full cost of development of airframes, and hope that bulk sales will be enough for break-even. The learning is also invaluable.

Race To The South Pole: Lessons For ISRO

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There are great lessons to be learned from the 1911 race to the South Pole by two teams: a Norwegian effort led by Roald Amundsen, and a British effort led by Robert Scott.

Briefly, Amundsen won, reaching the Pole five weeks ahead of the British, and made it safely back. The British team did get to the Pole, but froze to death on the return, all hands lost.

The story is of organisational effectiveness and careful planning. India can use these ideas because its entire space programme is based on the same, and on taking few risks.

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The British treated the Antarctic expedition as a matter of prestige, and sent out a group of gentleman-amateurs. In hindsight, it is not surprising they lost the race, and died.

There is great value to long experience in local conditions. Roald Amundsen had under his belt an earlier expedition, where he was the first to find the ‘Northwest Passage’, the mostly ice-bound Arctic route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Incidentally, it was a privately-financed expedition, and he had to set sail on the sly in the middle of the night, because his creditors were about to repossess his ship!

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Amundsen spent years acclimatising himself, getting advice from the native Inuit (Eskimo), learning to eat raw seal meat, and how to use husky dogs to pull sleds. He learned from the experiences of others.

In contrast, the British used ponies (which froze to death) and mechanical sleds (which broke down). Amundsen planned to slaughter half his huskies to feed the other half on the way back, which is brutal but methodical.

The management theorist, Jim Collins, used the Amundsen story as a basis for surprising clues to success in business in ‘Great by Choice’.

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He thought Amundsen’s management style correlated with success, and fit in with his study of 10 pairs of large companies over 20 years (where one did well and the other didn’t):

  1. The 20-mile march
  2. Bullets, then cannonballs
  3. Productive paranoia

The 20-mile march is about fanatical self-discipline: keep the goal in mind and work steadily but unhurriedly towards it. Amundsen set out a clear plan of action for daily progress: say, 20 miles every day.

On a good day weather-wise, his team didn’t rush ahead. In a blizzard, they still met their goal. In business, companies like Southwest Airlines that pursued a slow-and-steady course, adding only new four cities a year, did much better than those that grew pell-mell in good times, and then went under in cyclical industry downturns.

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Ideally, a firm should test-run a number of low-risk experiments (i.e. shooting bullets at the target), get traction, and then decide to go full force (i.e. cannonball) behind one. Thus, explore several options, find one that seems to work empirically, and then put all effort into that option.

As an example, Microsoft tried mobile computing, video games, e-HR (LinkedIn), and open-source (GitHub). It failed in mobile with Windows Mobile, and exited. It did reasonably well in video games. But its big hit was Azure (cloud computing) and it has put its entire weight behind this, downplaying earlier Windows and Office franchises.

It’s not clinical, panicky paranoia that we’re talking about, but the kind that anticipates the worst possible outcomes, and takes steps to alleviate them. For instance, Amundsen took three precision thermometers with him. Scott took only one, and it broke.

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Knowing that it would be hard to navigate in blizzards, and easy to lose one’s way, Amundsen set out many food caches for his return journey, and each was marked by ever-expanding circles of flags, so that even if he was blown off course by quite a bit, he would have been able to find the food cache.

Says Jim Collins, about the winners he identified: “By preparing ahead of time, building reserves, maintaining ‘irrationally’ large margins of safety, bounding their risk, and honing their disciplines in good times and bad, they handled disruptions from a position of strength and flexibility. They understood, deeply: the only mistakes you can learn from are the ones you survive.”

That should be ISRO’s mantra.

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First, 20-mile march: ISRO should decide upon long-term goals (e.g., a manned space station), and then work steadily and methodically towards them without undue haste. Do not be agitated by what other countries do. To their credit, ISRO have done this so far.

Second, bullets, then cannonballs: Consider several markets, build prototypes and then focus on the ones that give the best returns.

Now there’s a heavy-lift Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for moon and Mars missions, although private players like SpaceX are building absolutely enormous lifters; but there’ll be continued demand for LEO (low-earth orbit) satellites and tiny Cubesats, so develop smaller rockets too, until you hit upon the most popular and lucrative.

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Third, productive paranoia: Try to build the least complicated craft, consider every possible eventuality, and build in large margins of error and as much redundancy as possible, and learn from others’ mistakes (e.g., the 1986 Challenger disaster that blew up a US craft and killed all on board). Try to avoid manned missions, because robot-run spacecraft are expendable.

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