Destination Moon: ISRO and the view from outer space

Puffing up with national pride may even have political dividends but space science offers a different view of the Chandrayaan-3 triumph

Moon lander 'Vikram' and rover Pragyan on the moon's surface (Photo: ISRO)
Moon lander 'Vikram' and rover Pragyan on the moon's surface (Photo: ISRO)

Aakar Patel

The last astronauts landed on the moon 51 years ago. Their last names—Cernan, Evans and Schmitt—are not as familiar to us as the name Armstrong. The fact is that after the first moon landing in 1969, the space race was deemed to be over.

It is very expensive to run space programmes, and with public interest and excitement waning, so did the ambition, intensity and capacity of both American and Russian space programmes. A plan to send humans to Mars was drawn up immediately after Armstrong’s success but it was never executed.

The man who made the plan, Wernher Von Braun—a Nazi rocket scientist captured by the Americans and brought to the US where he eventually became director of NASA—was put to pasture. The giant rocket that took Americans there, the Saturn V, was scrapped. The Apollo missions to the moon were over.

The Space Shuttle Program that followed deployed a fleet of more modest, partly reusable vehicles that took astronauts into lower earth orbit. It was functional for 30 years from 1981 to 2011.

Over the following decade, America did not have the capacity to launch its own astronauts to the International Space Station—which maintains an orbit of about 400 kilometres above sea level—both NASA and European astronauts relied on Russian spacecraft to get there. This changed in 2020 when the private company SpaceX achieved the capacity to transport humans.

Today, the two most active space programmes in the world are run by SpaceX and the Chinese. (China is not a member of the ISS community but has built its own space station and is expanding it every year.) SpaceX launched 61 missions in 2022, and China roughly the same number.

In comparison, India i.e., ISRO had four successful launches in 2022—three PSLVs (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles) and one GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle), now renamed LVM (Launch Vehicle Mark). These figures should not discourage us because our budgets are far lower, though in ambition India’s programme matches the rest.

After the phenomenal success of India landing a rover on the moon, the next step is to put a human in orbit. Astronaut Rakesh Sharma remains the only Indian citizen to have orbited the earth. That was 40 years ago in April 1984, and on a Soviet spacecraft.

If all goes well over the next two years or so, India hopes to send Gaganyaan into a 400 kilometre orbit for a three-day mission with three crew members on board. The most difficult aspect of this—which is to safely send a rocket into orbit—has already been demonstrated several times over since our first orbital launch.

Recently, we have seen that India has also mastered propulsive landing, which is the ability to land a spaceship using its own power, slowing down from orbital velocity through a controlled descent. When we achieve human spaceflight, we will be only the fifth nation or entity to achieve this, after the Russians, Americans, Chinese and SpaceX.

It is very likely that we will get there and equally likely that we will then push for more. The question is, what will that ‘more’ be?

The ultimate aim of space programmes is not national glory. Being the first is a milestone that will invariably be left behind. A series of firsts—the first person to orbit, the first to spacewalk, the first to land on the moon—are all half a century-old.

There are already people who have spent a year in orbit on the ISS. (As I write, SpaceX’s four-member Crew-7 docked at the ISS on Sunday, 27 August.) The only ‘first’ to be achieved in the next couple of decades would be to land humans on Mars and perhaps set up a permanent base there.

In short, being first is not a goal in and of itself. The larger ambition is to further human civilisation. If and when a spaceship from our planet lands on another, it acts as a herald not from a nation but from the entire world.

The International Space Station recognises this. It is a joint effort by the US, Japan, Russia, Canada and the European Union. The names of the astronauts currently on board the ISS reflect this diversity: Rubio, Prokopyev, Petelin, Bowen, Hoburg, Alneyadi, Fedyaev, Furukawa, Borisov, Mogensen, and Jasmin Moghbeli (who commanded Crew-7).

Note that the joint space programme continues, despite the EU and America arming Ukraine against Russia through the ongoing hostilities. This is so because achievements in space exploration are about more than narrow notions of nationhood.

Science in general and space in particular tends to make us come together. Astronauts who have orbited the earth are known to acknowledge deep transformations. They see our planet in a way that the rest of us cannot—how thin our blue atmosphere is, how vulnerable it looks.

From their vantage point, the third planet from the sun is a unified whole, without artificial borders, without races. A valuable reminder for humanity, encouraging us to work together towards a better future for our planet even as we collectively celebrate our advancements in space.

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