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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 35-36 August 26 & September 2, 2023

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, Aug 26 & Sept 2, 2023

Friday 25 August 2023


Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, Aug 26 & Sept 2, 2023

The successful landing on the moon of the space probe Chandrayaan 3 is a great moment for India and we must celebrate this collective achievement of our scientists and engineers whose work made this possible [1]. It was odd that the live TV feed of the final moments of Chandrayan 3’s landing as broadcast on TV or YouTube had the TV screen split into two on one half the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and on the other half the picture of the spacecraft. The world was there to see the moon landing and not the Prime Minister of India, the footage came over as self-promotion [2]. This great success of India’s space programme should not be trumpeted as an achievement of our current government, nor given a colour of ‘nationalism/chauvinism ’ or portrayed in terms of ’civilisational’ superiority as is fashionable among inward-looking Hindutva proponents these days in India. In the late 1940s, and early 1950s thanks to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru a poor third-world country gave some of its top scientists a say in planning for the future where technology could be harnessed for social and economic gain. [3] The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962 by the Prime Minister at the suggestion of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, a key figure in India’s space programme. Subsequently, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established to develop national capabilities to develop rockets for the launch of satellites for remote sensing and for communications etc. Dr Satish Dhawan [4] who headed ISRO believed in leading the space programme firmly for scientific, educational, and peaceful purposes. Thanks to Dr. Dhawan a great believer in the social responsibility of scientists a unique programme called Sattelite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was launched — it was jointly designed by ISRO and NASA using an American satellite that beamed educational programmes to TV sets with big dish antennas in 2400 villages across 20 states of India in the mid-1970s. [5] But as the Indian space programme moved ahead and gained ambition the US government was unwilling to share what it called dual-use technologies that could be turned to military use. Indian technologists had to find workarounds did get vital help from the former Soviet Union for its space programme. [6] In the long journey of India’s space programme, its engineers worked and learnt like all scientists from collective global advances in a universal stream of science and technology [7]. The flawless moon landing of Chandrayaan3 on August 23, 2023 and all the excitement it has generated should be used to promote science and a scientific outlook, to teach people to ask questions and to create a rationalist culture in our society that is filled with blind faith, superstitious beliefs. Big science and big technology have their failings, and constraints that need constant debate internally, to question certitudes and face the challenges of the current environmental crisis that is rooted in an industrialisation that disregarded nature. Our entire political class needs lessons in science to challenge their irresponsible climate change denialism and playing deaf to all calls to stop the mindless destruction of fragile mountain ecology, river and forest systems in India [8]. We need ecologists and technologists in dialogue to develop people-friendly solutions for fossil fuel-free energy transition. Any sober reading shows that India’s space and missile programmes are Siamese twins — ISRO’s SLV rockets form the first stage of the Agni missiles. The bulk of our science and technology budget goes into Space and defence, starving other areas of scientific research and education. All power to committed scientists and educators who campaign and march for Science against the forces of darkness and for the peaceful use of science and technology.

25 August 2023 —HK

[1Design to landing: Over 100 women built key Chandrayaan-3 systems, took India to Moon

[2PM’s entry during Moon Landing (subtitled in English)

[3Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speech in Hindustani on the need for Science

[4Satish Dhawan: Refractions from another time

[5Chander, Romesh; Karnik, Kiran (1976). Planning for Satellite Broadcasting: The Indian Instructional TV Experiment. UNESCO Press

[6Cooperation in Space between the USSR and India — Satish Dhawan (1981)

[8‘Experts’ Made Disasters in the Himalayas

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