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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 45

Voyage to the Moon


Monday 27 October 2008, by SC

October 22 was indeed a memorable day in the annals of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) founded by that outstanding personality, Vikram Sarabhai, who, along with Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear programme, imparted a new dimension to the country’s space and nuclear research. That morning at 6.22 am India’s moon mission Chandrayan-1 was successfully put into its initial orbit by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C11) notwithstanding inclement weather at the Sriharikota Space Centre. India has thus stormed into lunar club that till yesterday had the US, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China as its exclusive members. This extra-ordinary feat is fresh testimony to the strides we have taken in science and technology since we achieved independence more than 61 years ago.

As has been already brought out in the media, the moon mission intends to (a) develop a three-dimensional atlas of both the near and far side of the moon for deeper comprehension; (b) carry out chemical and mineralogical mapping of the entire lunar surface; (c) search for helium-3, regarded as the cleanest of fuels that is sparsely available on earth (only 15 tonnes) but found in abundance on moon (up to an estimated five million tones—sufficient to produce energy for 8000 years) and this can be successfully harnessed in nuclear reactors thus resolving our power problems; (d) search for water ice and study of lunar rocks—even if there has been no definite detection, latest evidence points to the existence of water on the moon.

The moon mission is thus of enormous significance for a developing country like India that has lately left its deep impress on the world by dint of its scientific and technological prowess for which its talented scientists and technologists deserve unreserved acclaim. Of course, Chandrayan-1 will face major challenges in the days ahead. As of now it has begun the first leg of its moon journey. ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair has already injected an element of caution while declaring that the country has opened a “new chapter in the history of space programme” with the PSLV-C11 placing Chandrayan-1 into its initial orbit. In his own words:

This is only the beginning of a long journey. Though the displacement of the spacecraft would be 400,000 km, it actually has to travel a much longer distance through elliptical orbits to go to the lunar orbit on November 8. That’s a very complex operation. There are uncertain days ahead.

Within the next 15 days the Chandrayan is to move into higher elliptical orbits around the earth; thereafter it will enter the lunar orbit, 387,000 km from earth, and ease into a stable orbit 100 km above the moon. What is noteworthy is that subsequently the Chandrayan is to drop a 23-kg Moon Impact Probe, carrying the Indian tricolour and scientific instruments.

This is our first moon mission. India’s next missions are: (i) Chandrayan-2, an Indo-Russian joint cooperative venture, aimed at soft-landing a rover on the surface of the moon, and (ii) landing of Indian astronauts on the moon by approximately 2020 (though before that by 2015 two astronauts from the country are to be sent into space).

This major success for the ISRO has made all Indians proud of our potentialities. Despite allround cynicism, generated from the murky goings-on in practically every sphere of activity in the nation as a whole, the moon mission is a source of immense inspiration and encouragement for the country in general capable of lifting our spirits in the prevailing atmosphere of hope-lessness and gloom. For that, those behind the endeavour merit our wholehearted congratu-lations.

The disruptive game of the MNS in Mumbai and Maharashtra that has engendered similar reaction in other parts of the country, the Hindu communal forces’ depredations against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka, the growing communa-lisation of the polity as well as the stereotyping of Muslims in the aftermath of the terror blasts in different parts of the country including the Capital—all these have of late dealt a heavy blow to the Gandhi-Nehru project that fashioned our post-independence path of progress, a project which, despite all its limitations, has proved its worth through numerous adversities. The Chandrayan-1 mission once again highlights the importance of that very project which helped to chart, amid all trvails, our independent path of advance manifest in such a daring exploit into outer space.

October 23 S.C.

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