Chandrayaan: Reaching for the stars
This interview with S Chandrashekar, an erstwhile scientist at ISRO and now a professor at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore aims at providing an insider’s perspective into the Chandrayaan mission and critically examining the need for this programme. The rise of ISRO as an organization and India’s growth in indigenous space capability is used as the lens for examining current and future space plans. Through Prof. Chandrashekar’s extensive experience in ISRO and his academic insights, some of the lesser known details of past missions and the political implications are also drawn out.
Thank you for speaking to us. Before delving into the Chandrayaan mission in particular, could you sketch out the role of ISRO in terms of the Indian society?
In order to give you a brief overview of the rationale behind a country like India building up capability in space, I need to go back a little in time to recount the motivation behind the programme. Its’ origins go back to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, a very famous industrialist who was also the creator and cultivator of many elite institutions in the country. He was a physicist whose primary research interests lay in the areas of space technology.
Given the large expenditure a space mission entails, do you believe the resources could have been utilized for other purposes? Chandrayaan will provide us with mineralogical data and other visual data - how important will this information be?
At the same time, he made consistent efforts towards exploring the possibilities of applying space technology to solve a range of problems faced by India. If you go back to the initial phase of the Indian space program, we had no indigenous capability. Hence, we had to create an organization that could provide this capability. Dr. Sarabhai took the lead and set up this organization.
Let me talk about the motivation behind the space programme. I believe that it is about the value that you would put on the future of the nation and the role that an organization like ISRO would play in shaping that future. An important part of this is the economic aspect; If I assess the programme on the economic front, I think it has arguably demonstrated that it has significantly contributed to national development. The payoffs that we are getting today far exceed the investments we have made in the programme.
When we started with the programme, we used to operate on a shoestring budget. India was a poor country that was trying to transform itself and therefore, there was a need to orient the programme to meet the practical needs of the country. Today, the situation is different. We are a prosperous country, one that can afford to pursue space science and build indigenous technologies.
What is the value of such fundamental knowledge? Will such missions lead to any tangible economic or financial benefits?
In my opinion, the pursuit of fundamental science is one of the noblest motives behind any human endeavour. If we take the problem of the working of the solar system, the planetary exploration programmes of United States, Japan, Russia and many other countries have all added immeasurably to our understanding of the solar neighborhood.
How do you think finding Hydrogen on Jupiter or determining the rain content on Venus is going to benefit mankind? The real purpose is to understand the nature of the solar system and the evolution of the planets and to draw inferences about Earth from similar features on Mars and other planets. Hence the pursuit of fundamental knowledge is the main driving force behind the mission. Other benefits such as mineralogical data are just peripheral.
Since our space programme is much more cost effective than that of other countries, it allows us the leeway to devote a part of space activity to the pursuit of science. Let us not forget, if India has achieved anything in its space mission today, it is largely due to international collaboration. In the early days, many of our space scientists were trained in Russian establishments. The U.S had also extended its support to our space missions. In return, we have often carried payloads for them free of cost.
Since comparisons between India and China are inevitable, could you give us some insights into their space programme?
Chandrayaan too carried six payloads from other international space agencies including NASA, ESA, and the Bulgarian Aerospace Agency, free of cost. In a recent meeting with the American Association of the Advancement of Science, I saw the palpable excitement about the giant leap we had taken. All the delegates were highly appreciative of India’s efforts and showed tremendous support.
Therefore, one should not weigh the pursuit of knowledge purely in terms of the tangible economic gains expected in the short term. ASTROSAT, another satellite launched by ISRO earlier, that studies background microwave radiation and the Big Bang, is another example of a space mission for scientific activities.
We all know that China is a more advanced space power and the scale at which China operates is much larger than the scale of Indian operations. Fundamental to the Chinese space programme is the fact that it is largely derived from their defence program. A huge amount of investment was dedicated to their military and missile programmes, and it was from those investments that China built up their space programme. It is also clearly evident that China wants to demonstrate to the world that it is a global space power.
Considering the differing stance taken by China and a few other countries towards space, are we running the risk of triggering a space war?
The Indian space programme, because of the circumstances under which it was developed, has largely been geared towards delivering civilian benefits. The Indian objective has never been to position itself as an aggressive power in the space race. The important question here is – will we continue to work towards the objective of building capabilities for civilian benefits?
Having launched Chandrayaan now, what’s next on the agenda for India? Should India work on sending a man to the moon?
If we analyze recent global developments, the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of “Weaponizing the space”. This has resulted in the U.S developing both defensive and offensive capabilities to protect their space assets. America’s success in the Iraq war was partly due to the military capabilities provided by their space investments. Therefore their current strategic view is oriented towards protecting those investments. These have necessitated the deployment of ballistic missile systems and anti satellite weapons. which can also be used against other nations.
This strategy has the potential to trigger a space race. If America proceeds on this path, other super powers like Russia and China will invariably follow. Moreover, if China has such capabilities, the question that arises is whether India should do the same? The geopolitical situation has continuously evolved over time and we are major players in a global game today. While I think India would want to continue developing its space programme for civilian benefits and stay away from the space race, there will be certain ripple effects from the actions taken by other nations.
The one area where I disagree with the objectives of the space programme is on the issue of sending a man to the moon. I believe that if India sends a man to the moon, it will just be treading down the same path as the other big space powers. It will serve no useful purpose and will be a mere demonstration of political power.
What do you think are the implications to the lunar mission in light of the recent media reports of component failures in Chandrayaaan? How do you think they will affect Chandrayaan II?
The act will no longer be a quest to answer a technological query or a pursuit of science; rather it will just become an ethical, moral and political dilemma. We should refrain from the venture and show the world that we are different. I don’t consider Chandrayaan as a waste of money but I cannot say the same about the idea of sending a man to the moon.
Recent media reports have highlighted that the star sensors, which are critical components on the spacecraft have failed. Prior to that, the common bus also had malfunctioned. However, in an unmanned mission, there are a number of redundancies built into the system to prevent single point failures. On a very technical level, the loss of the star sensors has an impact on the precision of the images taken by the probe, but the resolution etc. will not be affected significantly since the ISRO scientists have employed a system to take care of the failures.
I believe that in spite of the ‘failures’, Chandrayaan has been a success in most respects. It has achieved a substantial part of what it set out to do. Thus, ISRO should have come out more openly with the facts related to the failures.
We must understand that Chandrayaan- I has been a learning experience for ISRO given that most of the pre-launch modeling is based on incomplete data. Chandrayaan differs from the earlier missions in the sense that there is shortage of data pertaining to outer space missions, as compared to satellites, which orbit closer to the earth. Given the complexities involved in space, better modeling can only be done with real time data that is available only by launching such missions. In this respect, Chandrayaan only paves the way for better future missions such as Chandrayaan II, since it can help minimize errors though not eliminate them completely.
From the early cash-strapped days, ISRO has strategically built up an indigenous space capability and has become a strong player in the global space arena. It was initially aided in the same by other foreign space powers, and is now helping other countries in various ways such as carrying their payloads, launching mini-satellites etc. The pursuit of fundamental knowledge has been a key driver behind the space programme, apart from the tangible socio-economic benefits provided by it. The Chandrayaan mission is another such pursuit and marks the zenith of India’s space programme. The way forward, however, is not so clear, due to the differing Chinese and American approaches to space.
Prof. S Chandrashekar's
areas of expertise are mainly Technology Management and R & D Management. After getting a B.Tech from IIT-Madras in Metallurgy and a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management (PGDM) from IIM-Calcutta, he joined the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as a Scientist.
At ISRO, his responsibilities spanned a wide spectrum of activities ranging from programme and budget planning, monitoring and control to project responsibilities for the various satellite and launch vehicle projects. He was a member and then the leader of the Indian delegation to the UN Outer Space Committee and is an expert on the Law of Outer Space. He has negotiated several major domestic and international contracts, both in the satellite and launch vehicle area. He played a major role in the remote sensing and communication satellite programmes of ISRO, especially in the INSAT and IRS programmes.