India mission launch important to engineering, civic communities

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While most of the world was glued to the television screen watching reruns of the United States presidential debates for perhaps the 10th time, a nation was rejoicing in the accomplishment of what it saw as a step closer to reaching for the stars.

On Oct. 22, Chandrayaan-1, India’s very first mission to the moon, was launched successfully. The unmanned probe will orbit the moon for two years and help map the surface of the moon in great detail.
Excited that India, my homeland, had ventured into space, I read a few news articles on the subject. Rather than lauding the technological and humanitarian accomplishment of a successful moon mission launch, most of the articles seemed to say that a year after Japan, and then China, launched missions to the moon, India launched one too so as to not be left behind in the space race.

A few news sources, notably the AFP and BBC News, also went on to highlight that the space race was soon to become even more “exciting” as a new competitor, South Korea, would soon join it. Overall, the news releases presented the situation as though it were the 1950s, and the United States and the Soviet Union were vying for the top slot in the space race again.

Although technological rivalry, especially between countries like India and China, may seem like juicy news, I believe it is not right to say that the sole purpose of the Indian mission was simply to compete with China. I believe that the launch was less about making a statement to the rest of the world on India’s part, and more about proving to itself and its people that it is capable of performing such a feat. Rather significantly, these news sources missed out on the sense of Indian national pride that the mission instilled in the hearts of the people.

Having friends and family back in India, I know that many families woke up at 6 a.m. on the morning of the launch to watch the live, streaming coverage of the rocket takeoff. Even days after the launch, my e-mail inbox was continually flooded with links to videos of the launch. I have not seen such excitement in India since the Cricket World Cup, when the cricket-crazy fans would stay up at odd hours to finish watching their favorite games.

What made this launch so special for the Indian people? For one thing, it spoke to the technological prowess of the country. Although the technology for sending a probe to the moon has been tried and tested — India is the sixth country or group after the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan, and China to launch a mission to the moon — Chandrayaan-1 was significant because technology at this scale has never before been employed in India.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has previously been involved in small-scale projects involving satellites sent to monitor weather or provide television access to remote parts of the country. For an organization that had largely been involved in sending satellites to only 36,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface, launching a probe nearly 384,000 kilometers into space is no easy feat. With a budget that is less than one-tenth of NASA’s, ISRO didn’t have it easy when it came to launching such a large-scale mission. However, within the five years that the plan took shape, ISRO not only managed to develop the needed technology, but also managed to develop the technology at nearly one-sixth the cost of the Japanese program.

The second factor that made this launch so special, which by far impressed me the most, was the planning behind it. In 2002, ISRO announced its plans of having an unmanned mission to the moon by 2007. Anyone who has lived in India for some time or knows the general working of the Indian government would understand why people would have been skeptical about the 2002 announcement. At that time, citizens’ immediate reaction was to think that it would be a great achievement if such a mission were accomplished by 2015. However, ISRO proved everyone wrong by actually launching the rocket, not in 2015, but just one year after the projected date.

The mission thus served as a confidence booster for the entire country. It proved to the Indian scientists that space research was no longer out of reach, and demonstrated that India is not actually so bad at meeting deadlines. ISRO had previously focused all of its missions on low-budget projects aimed at helping the general public. While such welfare-oriented missions are still necessary, it was time for India to plunge into the field of space research and this mission helped India achieve that goal.

The boost in confidence is evident from the fact that the second phase of the mission, Chandrayaan-2, which consists of a rover that will land on the moon, has been slated for launch just three years from now, in 2011. Many term this proposition as being “over-ambitious” and “impossible,” but with current trends, ISRO might just surprise everyone yet again.