ISRO, making India count
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ISRO, making India count

August 26, 2023

On Aug. 23 at 5.45 pm, like most Indians, I too was glued to my television. I prepared to experience what former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman Dr. K. Sivan called ‘15 minutes of terror’ — The critical 15-minute landing sequence for Chandrayaan, when the spacecraft operates autonomously, rendering engineers and scientists mere spectators.  

Many of us were still reeling from the memories of Sept. 6, 2019, when what we hoped would be a moment of glory and pride left us screaming, “Vikram yellidiyappa…” as the Vikram Moon Lander lost communication with the ground station of ISRO.

But this time, the 15 minutes of terror ended in tears of joy as Vikram Lander, carrying Rover Pragyaan, landed softly and safely on the Moon’s South Pole, the only country to land there successfully so far.

Chandrayaan-3’s success is inspiring, and to see ISRO, a Government institution, succeed in such a spectacular fashion gives us hope. Chandrayaan-3 was built on what ISRO learnt from its previous failure. In Chandrayaan-2, the failure of the guidance algorithm caused the Vikram Lander to crash-land. In the past four years, the lander got new legs and algorithm.

ISRO, with its grand missions, has re-ignited enthusiasm and curiosity among Indians, both young and old, about space science and science in general. The last time some of us felt this way was 39 years ago.

 In 1984, I wore a large white full-face helmet, a white puffy jacket with the Indian flag patch sewed to the arm and puffy pants stitched by my mother. I had dressed as Rakesh Sharma for the annual school fancy dress competition because on April 2, 1984, Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to travel in space, and there was great jubilation and national pride.

Back then, Rakesh Sharma’s space travel had triggered a lot of interest in space science, and many youngsters pursued this as a career option. When we saw numerous ISRO personnel sitting in front of computer screens at the Mission Operations Complex (MOX) on Wednesday, most looked like they were from the Rakesh Sharma-enthused era. 

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As much as ISRO wanted this Moon landing, India needed this re-ignition of scientific interest. For far too long, Indian education has catered for ‘employability’ rather than ‘excellence’. ISRO’s success may spur us to encourage our children to pursue excellence rather than just employability.

 Many wonder why a nation like India must explore the Moon or even have a space programme. Well, it’s not just about being explorers, being in the ‘space race’ or national pride; it’s also about science and making life better here on Earth. Thousands of space science inventions and tech innovations have been used on Earth.

For example, the cooling suits used by astronauts today help people with multiple sclerosis whose symptoms are exacerbated by heat. Infrared ear thermometer, Cochlear ear, Lasik eye surgery, and even invisible braces owe their existence to space tech!

Even in transportation, anti-icing systems in aircraft and radial tyres are space tech. Then we have inventions such as enriched baby food, freeze-dried food, cordless vacuum cleaners, fire-resistant fabric, and even something as simple as the exercise machine Bowflex; all these were born out of scientists inventing technology for space exploration.

ISRO too is monetising its tech. Since its inception, ISRO has transferred over 300 space technology innovations to Indian industries. In 2019, ISRO formed a company named ‘New Space India Limited’ (NSIL), a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) that commercialises its innovations and technologies.

 Bureaucrat Vs Professional

 ISRO’s achievements show what happens when professionals run an institution instead of bureaucrats.

Last time, when Vikram crashed, then ISRO Chairman Dr. K. Sivan cried his heart out in full view of the nation. He probably saw himself as having let the country down and broke down even though there was so much to be proud of.

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I wonder if any bureaucrat heading any PSU can ever have such emotion, a sense of personal responsibility and accountability.

Also, the visuals of the control centre, like last time, were filled with ordinary-looking Indians doing something extraordinary.

A room full of middle-class, middle-aged and bright Indians doing something world-class without pomp or ‘attitude’.

It was a very humbling sight, a reflection of ordinary, hard-working Indians — Last time when Vikram Lander crashed, they were calm in disappointment, and this time, as Vikram landed safely, they were humble in praise. 

One should not forget that for nations to achieve such feats, generous and visionary leadership is necessary. Earlier, India found it with Nehru, who supported the creation of INCOSPAR (Indian National Committee for Space Research), the brainchild of Vikram Sarabhai; later, it became ISRO, and like Nehru, today, ISRO has the undeterred support of Narendra Modi.

It is a good time to remember Nehru’s words uttered while inaugurating the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1954; he said, “Lots of people may not know why such an emphasis is being put on science. Why is so much money being spent? If we wish to empower our country, we have to create a strong base – so we can learn the basics…This may not show immediate results, but the result will uplift the country.”

The result is here, and it has indeed uplifted the nation. Our First Prime Minister would have been proud of our scientists today.

There are moments in a nation’s history that can bring its people together, give them hope and confidence that they can be world-class, that they can stand up and be counted.

ISRO, by giving us a Moon landing, has given us a Standing in this world — to stand up and be counted among the best.

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