An Indian on the Moon: not so distant now
In a small town in India’s heartland in 1969, an entire neighbourhood huddled around the radio, sipping tea and waiting for the moment that would change space science for ever.
The room burst into applause as a controller at the Houston mission control radioed back — “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we’re breathing again.”
Growing up, I never tired of listening to my father’s account of the day humans landed on the moon. He always added wistfully — “One day it will be an Indian walking on the moon.”
As India launched its unmanned moon mission Chandrayaan-1, what was considered an overambitious and daunting prospect back in 1969 does not seem unachievable any more.
With the perfect launch of the lunar probe onboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C11) on the cloudy morning of October 22, Indian scientists have proved they have come of age.
The spacecraft has settled into an orbit at a height of about 100 km from the lunar surface and will spend two years scanning it for evidence of water and precious metals.
Even as I write this, a gadget called the Moon Impactor Probe, with the Indian tricolour painted on it, detached from the spacecraft and landed on the moon to kick up some dust while instruments in the craft analyse the particles.
While a jubilant nation united in lauding scientists who spent years preparing for the occasion, the Internet is buzzing with discussions on the scope of India’s space programme and its effect on economy, politics and scientific research.
At 3.86 billion rupees, India’s lunar project costs much less compared to Asian rivals China and Japan — in itself an achievement in maximizing results while staying within a tight budget.
From 1963, when it first started its space programme, to the 2008 lunar mission — India has broken into the elitist club of space giants, dominated mainly by Russia, Europe and America.
Not only has India proved its credibility as a serious player in the space arena, it has made its space programme a bankable and competitive bet in the global satellite launch business.
I think the lunar mission has given India a sense of direction and confidence to compete shoulder-to-shoulder in the challenging and expensive field of space exploration.
The flawless launch of Chandrayaan-1 has created a maelstrom of interest in the scientific world and ISRO hopes its success will attract more young minds into India’s space research and lure back its scientists working in other countries.
If all goes according to plan, Chandrayaan-2 is expected to take off sometime between 2010 and 2012 and will include a robotic rover that will land on the moon.
India’s plans to put an astronaut into space by 2014 and send a manned mission to the moon by 2020 do not seem far-fetched any more. Neither does ‘Aditya’ — a satellite project to study solar emissions.
Some argue whether there is any sense in spending millions of rupees on space research in a nation that desperately needs funds for its education, healthcare and defence sectors.
But Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman G Madhavan Nair defends the costs incurred in the moon mission saying most of the expenses have gone to create infrastructural facilities that will be used to send satellites to Mars and Venus.
The moon has always facinated and inspired poets, and as I look up at the night sky, I realize what a giant leap this mission is for India’s space science, which in near future will take us a step closer to unlocking its mystery.
I join millions in congratulating our scientists.