Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Mars Mission and India’s Vision

India launched its Mars mission Mangalyaan – mission to planet Mars in November 2013.  As the PSLV- C25 with India's Mars Orbiter on board lifts off majestically at 2.38 p.m on November 5, 2013 from the first launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, a new saga opened up in Indian space odyssey. The real start for all these happened during the first anniversary of Pokhran-II.  It was a passing remark by Dr.K.Kasturirangan then chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), in Delhi on May 11, 1999 that actually triggered the chain of events which ultimately culminated in the two milestones in Indian space research in less than one decade. That simple sentence was “India has the capability to undertake a mission to the moon.” The statement made a deep impact on the then union minister for science and technology Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi.  After the lecture the physicist-minister inquired the space scientist if he could materialize what he had declared in the podium. When Kasturirangan nodded in affirmation, Joshi promised all help from his government.  The project was analyzed in all its details before it was decided to give a full go ahead. In 2003 August 15th speech the then Prime Minister announced the world that India would launch its moon programme – he called it Chandrayaan.  

Both Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan have something in common with another scheme that comes from the same era. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is a scheme conceived in 1999 a national mission to achieve universal primary education.  Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – they all have one thing in common.  What can high flying space missions have in common with the ground level fight against illiteracy and school-drop out percentage?

It is a well ingrained Indian ethos.
Kopillil Radhakrishnan, the current chairman of ISRO, explained how ISRO made Mangalyaan the world's least-expensive Mars probe. Dismissing the phrase 'frugal engineering' which was increasingly used by the western media, he stated: “ISRO's general philosophy is cost effectiveness. The Russians look for robustness and the Americans go after optimization. Our aim at ISRO was how do we get to Mars on a budget.” Yes. It is cost-effectiveness that is the connecting string between Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. In the words of Dr.Joshi who conceived the SSA, “The basic thrust will be to come up with innovative techniques. Low-cost teachers from the community can make a school. The buildings can come up later."  Cost-effectiveness permeates almost all aspects of Indian technological innovations. In India wireless technologies have been developed to connect rural uses with switch exchanges at low costs, thus opening up rural areas.

The cost-effective designing of Indian technologists can change the way the space research is being conducted. One of the important programmes of ISRO is also the most innovative of ISRO's near future project: scramjet Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) which has been named Avatar. The Avatar is a hyperplane vehicle that can take off from conventional airfields, collect air in the atmosphere on the way up, liquefy it, separate oxygen and store it on board for subsequent flight beyond the atmosphere. The Avatar-RLV was first announced in May 1998 at the Aero India 98 exhibition held at Bangalore. Avatar can give India a great edge in global space research. Gregory Benford an astro-physicist at the University of California and an advisor to NASA and the Whilte House Council on Space Policy states that the Avatar RLV project will enable India to leap ahead of Chinese and once the low-cost to orbit comes alive it will drive cheaper methods of doing all our unmanned activities in space.

In the 1960s, Vikhram Sarabhai the architect of the Indian Space Program observed: 
There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.

When in 2013 we look with pride at the way we have become a serious player in global space programmes, we should also remember that actually ISRO has contributed vastly and innovatively to the problems humanity faces down at the earth. In fact ISRO has the largest such human-development oriented contribution by any space agency –even those of highly developed nations with huge budgets. In this connection Swami Vivekanadna has been a great inspiration to the scientists of ISRO. Dr.T.G.K.Murthy a renowned scientist of ISRO had worked in ISRO for forty years. He had developed number of novel electro-optical systems, having application in diverse disciplines such as Agriculture, Geology and Defense. He attributed his success to Swami Vivekananda, who changed the course of his life through his remarkable ideas and values like truthfulness, purity, modesty and humility. Cost-effectiveness and humanity-oriented research are the hallmarks of Indian Space Research Organization. Hence its successes are the successes of a civilization that is after centuries of subjugation claiming its place among the world nations and is becoming a guiding inspiration to the developing previously colonized countries. In effect the efforts of ISRO are fulfilling the vision of Swami Vivekananda of declaring the great Mother India to the world in the voice of peace and benediction.   
 Aravindan Neelakandan

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