Monday, November 10, 2008

CHANDRAYAAN: SPUR IT ON

Chandrayaan was pushed into orbit around the moon two days ago and it should be a proud moment for all Indians. If there's two aspects of Indian scientific research that have progressed almost without interruption in spite of the turns in our economy and the low standards in other scientific fields, they have been nuclear energy and space exploration. Indian nuclear and space scientists have been among the best in the world for decades. And they have accomplished remarkable feats in spite of international constraints, disapproval and sanctions.

So it was a little surprising for me when some condemned the launching of our newest spacecraft as sucking valuable resources away from our strained economy and initiatives for poor people. The critics of Chandrayaan included socialists who as usual started disingenuously bleating about how we have shamelessly engaged in space exploration when our poor cannot afford their daily bread, and libertarians who complained again about how this is a waste of tax rupees. Let me say upfront that if you are really worried about tax rupees, you should look at the other failed schemes of the government, the rampant corruption by middlemen and the ambitious self-aggrandizing ventures that our noble politicians indulge in for sources of income. Just like Americans who are concerned about tax dollars should look at the Iraq War and not ludicrously at healthcare for children, ganging up on important Indian science and technology objectives is misguided criticism.

I for one think the effort to be eminently justified (I am much more skeptical about a mission to Mars though wherein the costs may outweigh the benefits). There are many reasons why I think it makes sense. First of all, it may give a boost to Indian science which continues to stagnate. We are going to face a dangerous deficit of young scientific talent after the old guard of eminent scientists such as Anil Kakodkar, K Kasturirangan, P Balaram and C N R Rao retire. The reason for the deficit is clear; no financial or government incentives for luring young people into scientific research, dated basic facilities at many institutions, a lack of appreciation for basic scientific research and a clear paucity of vision and respect for future scientific development that is going to be crucial for the country.

In the midst of this scenario, the Indian nuclear and space science establishments appear to me to be the last two strongholds of scientific and engineering excellence that still nurture talent and promise real scientific, if not financial, results. But in my opinion, being a nuclear scientist in India in the next few decades is going to be both professionally and financially attractive. Nuclear power is going to emerge as the best bet we have for supporting our booming population and ensuring rapid progress. As our talented scientists and engineers make advances in thorium and related technology, it would be only lack of visionary leadership that would thwart our efforts to be poised to become one of the world leaders in nuclear developments. I believe that the argument for becoming a nuclear scientist in India is going to be as good in the next few years as it ever was.

As far as space science is concerned, there are two clear motives for such missions. Importantly, they lead to collateral but valuable discoveries in basic science, engineering and electronics. This is in addition to their primary motives, in this case the motive being to map the moons surface and study its atmosphere. This has always been a common theme in scientific research. The Apollo space program led to many other inventions and developments that were of general benefit to society. Planning any mission like Chandrayaan involves solving a lot of unforeseen problems on the fly. Solutions to these problems can be generalized and applied in other fields. The Manhattan Project for example provided a windfall of new discoveries, techniques and inventions that benefited sciences like electronics, metallurgy, nuclear reactor engineering and even aviation (the B-52 bombers had to be drastically modified to hoist the bombs). There is no better example of the journey being more valuable than the destination than tackling a complex, important and interdisciplinary scientific problem. Chandrayaan and other endeavors must have eminently satisfied such a condition.

The second motive may sound philosophical but it is probably even more important. In a country like ours where easy money and an overall better life lures many bright minds away from the sciences, we need constant inspiration. The best analogy I can think is of Homer Hickam, whose life story became the catalyst for October Sky, the single-most inspiring movie I have seen. Homer Hickam was a boy growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia in the 1950s, where kids had no future other than being relegated to the lucrative revenue-generating coal mines. But one day, Homer sees Sputnik streaking across the sky, and from then on, he battles entrenched tradition, his father's recalcitrance and many discouraging events to finally attend college and become an engineer for NASA.

Now, Sputnik accelerated funding for science and technology and scientific education in the United States with the goal of beating the Soviets. Maybe we don't have an urgent enemy as formidable as the Soviets. But beating the Soviets was not remotely on Homer's mind when he decided to study rocket science. For him, it was the fact that someone could build an object like that, that rational application of science, mathematics and ideas could culminate in such a dazzling enterprise, that inspired him and set him off on his own trajectory towards space.

If Chandrayaan can inspire even five Homer Hickams in India, our faltering scientific education system and establishment will get a great boost. After that, all that would be necessary would be to provide these five with an infinite field of space across which to blaze their dreams.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Manasi said...

I am with you on the importance and need for such space missions. And would like to point out this (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/How_India_flew_to_the_moon_economy_class/articleshow/3641756.cms) article in the TOI. Candrayaan cost us Rs 380 cr only. That is less that what our postal deficit estimate for 08-09 stands at, Rs 958 cr. While postal expenditure and space research are not comparable in any sense, the point is that the program was not as costly as the critics make it out to be.

The resulting revenue generation could be significant. Commercial space launches are increasing significantly and according to a report by the US federal Aviation Authority they were estimated to be almost 70% of all launches in the third quarter of 2008. In year 2007-08 the estimated revenue from commercial launches for all countries together was $2154.5 million.

According to TOI the revenue generated by India last year was around Rs 900 cr, and that it is growing by about 25%. The total budget for ISRO is a mere ~ Rs. 40 billion. And they employ some of the best minds in the world.

It pains me to see that objection about "wasting" taxpayer money, or using it for other "better" reasons being raised again and again by educated rational people. I hope they see the significance of what the space research sector is doing for India's further and standing as an international player. Space is the next big thing, and we cannot be left behind. I did rather give my money to be "wasted" on another launch, than let it fill the pockets of corrupt politicians.

There is a lot to be said about Indian space research, and not all of it is good. But maybe some other time.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks for the info. Very enlightening factoid! It's pretty clear that there are several other programs that are sucking taxpayer money. It is also inspiring to know the simple yet effective fixes that our scientists are attempting for space missions.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Ganesh said...

It is not only painful to see that people are raising objection to "wasting" taxpayers money, but its dis heartening to read comments of people such as the ones posted on Rediff (http://www.rediff.com/news/2008/nov/14chandrayaans-mip-lands-on-moon.htm). Many of these get into uncalled for comments on the social/religious/regional background of people behind this initiative and rarely talk of India(n) as a nation!

In long run, such sentiments are a big let down.

Just for update: ISRO has released some close up shots taken by the moon impact probe (http://www.isro.org/pslv-c11/photos/moon_images.htm)

12:01 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Hi Ganesh...nice to see you here. Thanks for the links. The photos are great and the comments are ridiculous! People really need to get some perspective.

10:30 AM  

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