The successful critical manoeuvre on November 8 that put Chandrayaan-1 in an orbit around the moon marked the completion of the most important phase of the Indian lunar mission. The rest of the mission involves only standard orbit manoeuvres, the likes of which the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is quite used to, and the performance of the on-board scientific instruments during the mission life of two years. The precision with which the crucial operation was exe cuted has unequivocally demonstrated ISRO’s capability to take up the more complex deep space missions as distinct from numerous near-earth missions in the past. The achievement has put India in the exclusive club of space-faring nations that have ventured beyond the sphere of earth’s gravitational influence. That ISRO brought this off in its first attempt is all the more commendable.
Although ISRO’s inherent scientific ability was never in doubt, Chandrayaan-1 — the maiden deep space endeavour — posed new technological challenges in telemetry, tracking, miniaturisation of on-board systems and devices, novel power packs and special thermal control of the spacecraft to withstand conditions of high solar load hitherto not experienced in the near-earth environment. The performance of the mission so far is testimony to ISRO’s advanced capabilities in all these respects. Nevertheless, as ISRO plans for Chandrayaan-2 in 2012-13 and a manned mission to space in 2015, when it will face even greater technology challenges, the question is whether the venture is worth the huge cost it will entail. A political factor that is relevant is the world’s constant India-China comparison and the latter’s demonstrated technological prowess in space technology. What is more, given the resurgent interest in tapping the moon’s resources, there is a strategic dimension to space missions. This becomes particularly relevant if one notes the discordance between the Moon Treaty, which very few countries have ratified, and the Outer Space Treaty, which most nations have. While the former emphasises the principle of ‘common heritage of mankind,’ the latter articulates it weakly. It is from this perspective that the rhetorical question posed by ISRO’s former chairman K. Kasturirangan, “Can we afford not to go to the moon?” and the basic question of whether India should venture into deep space need to be addressed. At the same time, as ISRO begins to think in terms of manned missions to space, which will cost a great deal more than unmanned missions, the cost-benefit analyses need to be done more rigorously than for relatively low-cost missions such as Chandrayaan. But these are policy issues that can be taken up later. Now is the time to congratulate ISRO on taking India’s exploration of space up a level — which very few developing countries have even aspired to reach.
7 months ago