THE soft landing of ‘Vikram’, the lunar craft with the rover ‘Pragyan’ nestled inside, on the south pole of the moon is a laudable achievement for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the country. It is all the more satisfying because Russian lunar craft Luna-25 crash-landed a few days ago and there was also the disappointment of Chandrayaan-2 (2019), which was again a case of crash-landing. The euphoric sentiments expressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Johannesburg, where he was attending the BRICS summit, were understandable. After all, India has become the fourth country after Russia/Soviet Union, the USA and China to join the moon club.
‘Pragyan’ would be active for a few weeks. It would carry out experiments and relay the data back, especially the spectrum analysis of the lunar mineral composition. What it would reveal is a matter of speculation. Regarding the rare minerals it hopes to find on the moon, there are many steps, both scientific and geopolitical, that have to be taken before the actual mining can be carried out. Global treaties on space exploration, including the planets, are yet to be finalised. It does seem that there would be a need for an international treaty on it, given the intense rivalries. The West is curious about India’s scientific wherewithal because apart from the US, there are no countries to rival Russia and China on the space front. So, the West, comprising the US and Europe, would be among the cheerleaders for ISRO.
The political and social context of a successful Chandrayaan-3 mission needs to be clarified. According to Prime Minister Modi, it is a great step forward for an assertive India that is stepping on the global stage in more ways than one, and he is not the one to fight shy of taking advantage of ISRO’s success. And it would be natural for many in the country to feel triumphant about India being in the forefront of science and technology.
It is necessary for the country to make a sober assessment of its capabilities and achievements. India has a long history of scientific and technological achievements, going back to the pre- and post-Independence years, and its standing is attributable to a long period of preparation and incubation.
PM Modi has been a great enthusiast of science and technology. It would be futile to point out the contradictions between his nationalist politics and his interest in scientific and technological developments in the country. They coexist in his mind and in the policies of his government. An example of this coexistence was the ISRO team taking a small model of Chandrayaan-3 to the temple of Lord Venkateswara in Tirumala for blessings.
Here is the catch: science and technology are value-neutral; after the take-off, scientific temper, which Modi’s critics want to emphasise, does not matter. The scientific establishment in the country is mostly without the scientific temper that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru so ardently believed in.
The contrast between personal belief systems and the pursuit of science has been evident right from the days of the beginnings of modern science, led by names such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Defying the Roman Catholic Church, Galileo had murmured ‘the earth moves’ at his trial in a celebrated example of science versus religion. The issue is more complicated. You can be a good scientist while holding irrational beliefs.
Prime Minister Modi and his critics have to look at India’s science and technology missions in practical terms. First, space exploration is an afterthought, and ISRO’s initial goal was to make the use of satellites for educational and information purposes. The rocket launches became a necessary part of the programme to put satellites into orbit, be it the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geo-Synchronic Launch Vehicle (GSLV). And India became good in launching satellites despite the denial of transfer of technology from the West. The Soviet Union/Russian connection helped in the matter, and so did the science and technology education based on the western model, keeping abreast with the latest developments. The other challenges that ISRO met successfully were in improving the functioning of satellites and the many uses they could be put to. It is the experience in conceptualising and executing the making of sophisticated satellites that lies behind the successful operations of ‘Vikram’ and ‘Pragyan’.
It is a steady and long journey. But ISRO is still in the mode of improvising technologies. There have not yet been technological breakthroughs. The big challenge now is to get into the scientific breakthrough mode, now that technology has been mastered.
It is true that in terms of improvisation, scientists and technologists have made breakthroughs in manufacturing and operational details. However, India is not yet a leader in science and technology. And it should set itself the goal of getting the breakthroughs that would change our understanding of the universe. That is the theoretical aspect of utilitarian technology with its marvels. India is at a critical juncture, and it does not seem to be prepared to make that quantum jump from improving on technologies to conceptual breakthroughs. So, the boast today that Chandrayaan-3’s $74-million budget is less than the cost of production of sci-fi film Gravity should not be a boast in the future because we have to get out of the ‘what is done elsewhere we do it better and at lesser cost’ mode. The world would only be too thrilled to benefit from the low costs of Indian space missions and in launching of satellite payloads. ISRO should become the frontier science site. For that, we need another generation of Homi Bhabhas, Vikram Sarabhais and Satish Dhawans. While pursuing the path of low-budget missions, India would need to think of going for the next-generation science and technology.
Most Read In 24 Hours
Don't MissView All
Isaac Herzog seeks India’s help in release of hostages held ...
TMC MP can be expelled only if the House votes in favour of ...
PM Netanyahu says Hamas did not release all women hostages a...
The decision amounts to creating a parallel jurisdiction, ta...
PM Modi launches initiative focusing on generating green credits through plantation on degraded wasteland
Prime Minister says Green Credits Initiative surpasses comme...