Indian space scientists have made the nation proud by successfully landing Chandrayaan 3 on the south pole region of the moon. India became the fourth country of the world to accomplish a soft-landing on the lunar surface but the first to do so where it did. This success was all the ‘sweeter’ after Chandrayaan 2 had failed to accomplish this objective. That failure did not deter either Indian space scientists or the government to make it, as the saying goes, a ‘stepping stone to success’.
The Head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had tears in his eyes at the failure of the Chandrayan 2. Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was present when the space craft attempted to make a soft landing but failed consoled him and the moment was caught on camera. Modi had acted then as a mature leader who knew, as the Head of the US space agency said at that time, that ‘space is hard’. He kept his faith in the abilities of ISRO and let it immediately proceed with Chandrayaan 3. On August 23 ISRO showed that the trust Modi and the Indian people reposed in its capabilities was not in vain.
What is also remarkable is the frugality with which Indian space scientists have achieved this Mission—less than US$ 77 million. This demonstrates the indigenous nature of Chandrayaan 3. Such spacecraft produced by other countries are far more expensive. Also, no country shares the sensitive technology which goes into sophisticated space vehicles with another country. It would be important for ISRO, as also other scientific institutions, to seek to ensure to keep costs of products using the latest technology manufactured in the country within affordable limits. This is a challenge but it has to be accepted by our technologists.
International praise for ISRO’s achievement has generally been fulsome. Most of it is genuine but geo-politics cannot be kept out of even scientific and technological success. Thus, many western media outlets were quick to compare India’s success with the failure of the Russian lunar craft in making a soft landing near the south pole a few days before Chandrayaan 3 did so. Adverse comments were made in these reports about the Russian space programme which was said to have declined in recent years. These reports recalled that Russia was the first country to send a satellite to orbit the earth in 1957 and the first country to send a man into space. There is no doubt that these media reports were motivated by heightened Western antipathy towards Russia because of its continuing aggression against Ukraine. It is important that no section of Indians echoes such sentiments for Russian and Indian interests coincide in many areas even though India has been unhappy with Putin’s policy and actions towards Ukraine.
The success of Chandrayaan 3 is a reminder that India has to move rapidly ahead in pure science and technology even as it achieves excellence in their applications. It is true that it is pointless to try to ‘re-invent’ the wheel. If technology that is needed by India is available elsewhere and is sold at reasonable prices it should be obtained instead of seeking to develop it indigenously. What is important is that the country possess skilled manpower that can build further on this kind of imported technology. That is what China has successfully done and is today posing a challenge to Western countries in many areas of frontier technologies such as communications and quantum computing. Clearly, India has been able to demonstrate through Chandrayaan 3 that it has skilled manpower in the space field and also the ability to manufacture engines and other high-grade equipment needed for such a Mission. These skills are now needed to be developed across the board for digital technologies are advancing at mind-boggling speed.
India missed the first industrial revolution and that resulted in its colonization. It simply cannot be left behind in the fourth industrial revolution currently underway and what will come in the future. Chandrayaan 3 has to serve both as an inspiration for what it has achieved and an encouragement for the great tasks that lie ahead in the fields of science and technology.
These tasks have to be tackled in a ‘whole of the nation’ approach. While the state can take the lead in some critical areas it must take the private sector along. The time when it was considered that the Indian private sector was not good enough to undertake complex capital goods manufacturing or participate in critical technical areas is long gone. The private sector has matured but needs to put in its own resources into research and development so that it too can acquire expertise in the frontier areas of technology.
Chandrayaan 3 has been a great achievement of Indian space scientists. That success has come through the support of successive governments for the Indian space programme. It is a national achievement and should be so treated. It should not be used for political point scoring. Some of that has already begun as can be seen from the comments of some political leaders. India’s security and hi-tech programmes including that in space should not be used for politicking. This is all the more important for elections to the Lok Sabha are only seven months away. The political class must reach a consensus that some areas of national activities have to be kept beyond politics. Naturally, this does not mean that the Prime Minister did anything wrong in leading the country to rejoice in ISRO’s achievement.