Thursday, June 13, 2024

Rover’s moonwalk sets India on course for space forays

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

As the rover craft gingerly rolled down the landing craft’s ramp, it literally turned into a moonwalk!

Symbolically, not entirely dissimilar to Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk from his dance ‘Billie Jean’ in ‘Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever’.Therein ends the similarity! In a series of moves, the rover will send back data to its earth station that may ultimately determine India’s, or for that matter, of all space players their future course of action for Mars, Sun, and other planetary and space explorations.

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For sure, India can and must take more payloads into orbits. ISRO’s vehicles could be the game-changer for the Japanese and Israeli space programs to take advantage of. In fact, India will need to be reckoned as a space power and consulted with in all negotiations and matters relating to space.

PM meets Isro scientists to congratulate them. He hugs Somnath.

PM visits Bangalore

The landing on the moon is a landmark achievement! It is undoubtedly a triumph of Indian science. A success that is the result of ISRO’s over 20 years of painstaking work and dedication.

As the helmsman of India’s space programs, G Somnath deserves congratulations. He has led from the front and kept the morale of his colleagues high despite the debacle of Chandrayaan 2 under another Chairman. The man needs to be congratulated for his cool and calm demeanour and humility at the height of success for the organisation he leads.

Equally, it is a victory for regional India, and for our many hundreds of smaller and unknown engineering colleges. Not everyone at ISRO is from the IITs or NITs, who in any case, desert their motherland for distant lands after taking advantage of the system, a premier education, subsidies and the like.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, watching the historic landing from Johannesberg where he was attending the BRICS summit, called it not just India’s achievement but also of the entire world. And truly it was a celebration worldwide as the global scientific community and leaders hailed the feat. Country after country heaped praise as Chandrayaan 3 landed on the moon’s South Pole said to be the most difficult area to land.

On his return from Greece, Mr Modi headed straight to Bangalore to felicitate scientists at ISRO’s headquarters in Bangalore. He announced the naming of the landing point of Chandrayaan 3’s Lander on the Moon as ‘Shiv Shakti’, linking it to India’s commitment to “universal welfare and the power of women”. Honouring the earlier mission Chandraayan 2four years ago, he also announced its lander’s touchdown point as ‘Tiranga Point’, symbolising that “every failure leads us to ultimate success”. 

Western media lauds ISRO’s success

World watches

We are not the first to be on the moon. The Russians and Chinese have been there before us. And so have the Americans, who beat everyone to the game with their manned moon missions of the sixties and seventies. Then there are the Japanese, Israelis and the Arab nations all waiting to grab a slice of the moon pie.

Reactions to Chandrayaan’s success have been one of welcome. Western media gave prime time news and feature slots, a sort of coming of age for India’s space program. The news was featured on prime-time news for almost the full 24-hour news cycle worldwide. This in itself is a significant achievement!

Also read: A mission revisited

For the first time, at least TV news coverage of Chandrayaan, have been devoid of criticism. On the contrary, the success has been described as the start of a new adventure that all can benefit from.

Russia’s Luna 25 crashes into moon

Pipping the Russians

Indians beating the Russians in their own game has bemused many. A western news channel termed the landing as “Egg on Russia’s face”.

Close to the Indian landing site, and a little before it, a Russian craft crash landed on the South Pole’s difficult terrain. This was seen as a setback to the Russians because, as an interlocutor said in one of the programs on a news channel, whoever conducts a successful landing and starts data collection on the moon gets the “first advantage” and calls the shots for the future.

In what can be termed as diplomatic niceties, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov congratulated S Jaishankar across the table during a meeting, albeit rather tersely. At least so it seemed.

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This is no one-upmanship game. Nevertheless, for once, the Russian arrogance is dealt a blow. One is forced to say that its blatant disregard for international codes of conduct and war in Ukraine, which they consider a vassal state, has got a telling response in the form of the space debacle. It’s probably nature’s way of getting even with perpetrators of violence and human rights violations.

Neil Armstrongs walks on the moon and plant American flag

Walk on the moon 

The American space program’s successful Apollo missions during the sixties and seventies resulted in humans first setting foot on the earth’s satellite. 

The footprint of Neil Armstrong as he embarked on the historic moonwalk changed the course of space odysseys worldwide. From stuff that were science fiction and pop literature, things moved to reality since then. 

Valentina Tereshkova

Woman space orbiter

That was in 1969. And 54 years ago. Earlier on, space walks by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and later by Valentina Tereshkova, who opened the frontiers of space to women, led the human imagination and endeavours to great heights. 

Tereshkova flew solo on Vostok 6 before America’s Apollo missions. She took off on her mission from a Soviet cosmodrome on 16 June 1963, orbited the Earth 48 times, and spent three days in space. She remains, to this day, the only woman to fly solo in space and one of the youngest to sub-orbit the Earth.

ISROs cost is cheaper than a Hollywood movie

Low budgets

India’s space adventure started small as do all such ventures everywhere. The country’s successes are due to a combination of our scientists’ dogged determination and ambition, and of successive governments, whose support and resource allocations over the years have kept the space program going, notwithstanding the failures and disappointments at times.

Compared to the Japanese, American and Russian budgets for the respective space program, ours isRs 615 cr, which is lower than that of Chandrayaan 2, indicating the efforts of ISRO at cost cutting. Western analysts comparedbudgets, which for our launch was $ 75 million, significantly lower than that of even some big Hollywood space movies, or for that matter, than Russia’s failed Luna 25 mission at $ 200 million. It also showsIndia’s ability to undertake exploratory missions with cost-cutting effectiveness.Chandrayaan 3saved on fuel by using the elliptical orbit around the moon instead of a direct landing approach.

Lunar space station as imagined in 1983

Future possibilities

The moon landing offers a plethora of opportunities for India and others to explore.

Th landing on South Pole is a significant achievement in itself. It’s considered an engineering marvel to make the landing on the difficult terrain.

Scientists can explore various possibilities, from taking a look at images of the surface at South Pole to study the frozen ice and water, and explore minerals that can possibly be used one way or the other.

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Above all, the very origins of the Moon can be re-examined, from how it separated from the Earth theory to other theories on the evolution of Moon. Last but not least, the study of temperature variations and the moon’s longer days and nights can open up new avenues to hitherto unanswered questions.

NASA’a Artemis’ space mission

NASA’s Artemis next

NASA’s next space exploration will take humans back to the Moon.

The Artemis program will be for scientific discovery, economic benefits and “inspiration for a new generation of explorers, the Artemis Generation.”

The program’s website claims that while maintaining American leadership in exploration, “we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all.”

It will be a US-Canadacollaboration with, as is only to be expected in American ventures, a strong involvement of the private sector. Rockets by SpaceX is believed to be very closely involved in the project. Talking of private participation in space, Sriharikota has anexclusive launch pad for private sector rockets

Mars exploration Rovers, pioneered by NASA

Stepping stone to Mars

What is most important is the comparative advantage India will have for future explorations on the moon and beyond. If we develop a space outstation on the South Pole, which by all accounts and images, has ice and water, it mightmake  explorationsin space that much easier for us.

With moon as the base for further explorations, India will be able to reach out even deeper inspace, include forays into mars and even the sun.

The day is not far when India can utilise a space station on the moon’s South Pole to recharge and explore deep into space. With the moon as the pitstop, who knows, the Mars or the Sun may be ISRO’s next halt.

Also read: Many Voices One World

Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"


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