The flawless launch of the Chandrayaan-1 means that India can confidently expect to become the sixth nation to carry out an unmanned mission to the moon. The most accident-prone part of any space mission is escaping the earth’s gravity —
and this had been done to perfection. There is little reason to believe the Chandrayaan-1 will not be readying to drop an Indian flag motif on the lunar surface this weekend.
Space missions, even unmanned ones, by developing countries like India are often received with scepticism because of their supposed high cost and their lack of utility. One of the less publicised successes of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has been to convert itself into a commercial enterprise, financed increasingly from profits rather than just government grants. Just as important, Isro’s competitiveness lays the basis for making India a nation with a competitive space industry — far more difficult than making it merely space capable. in fact, Isro is a model for its sister government agencies in defence and nuclear energy.
The Chandrayaan-1 mission cost a mere $86 million, less than half of what China’s first moon launch and a fifth of Japan’s Kayuga mission, further reinforcing India’s standing as a leader in innovative, low-cost manufacturing. The launch highlights
India’s prowess in space launches, satellite manufacture and space-related services — global industries collectively worth $200 billion a year. However, less known is that such technologies provide economic benefits worth five times more than the actual sector turnover thanks to know-how bleeding into the larger economy. Isro is right to try and balance the accounting books of India’s space programme, given the country’s state of development.
But one should not discount the utility of space programmes to provide harmless venues for the middle classes to express their nationalism. Surveys have shown that in countries like India and China, accomplishments in space are treated with greater pride than other technological big bangs like atomic bombs and silicon chips. Space races capture the imagination but do so in ways that are far less harmful than competition for weapons or markets.