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India on the moon
  • Chandrayaan-3
"India, I have arrived! And so have you!" At the message relayed to the control room by Vikram, the made-in-India module that landed softly on the lunar surface, excitement swept through not only the control room but all of India. "India is on the Moon! It's an unforgettable, phenomenal moment! It's the victory cry of the new India!" declared Premier Narendra Modi, who watched the landing from the BRICS Summit In South Africa, as he was echoed by all the country's news outlets. Which aired the event live, complete with anchors made to appear on the lunar surface as if broadcasting on the spot. On the other hand, so much enthusiasm is more than justified. The Vikram lander and the rover Pragyan landed Wednesday in the moon's southern polar region. Not only did India succeed where Russia had failed only a few days earlier, but it is only the fourth country to make a controlled landing on the lunar surface after the United States, China and the former Soviet Union (Putin's Russia has never completed a mission; the one that failed was the first in 47 years). And the fact that India chose one of the lunar poles as its destination-a more difficult prospect than landing near the equator-makes the achievement even more resounding since no one had ever made it that far. The Chandrayaan 3 spacecraft, from which the Vikram module detached, reaches the Moon fifteen years after the launch of its big sister, Chandrayaan 1: which, launched in 2008, discovered the presence of water molecules on the arid lunar surface and established that the Moon has an atmosphere during the day. The launch of Chandrayaan 2 in 2019, however, was a failure: the spacecraft failed to lunar land, and continues to circle the Moon from which, however, they say, it will be able to help Vikram send images and data back to Earth. Also in 2013, India's space agency had launched Mangalyaan, the 'spacecraft to Mars,' which entered orbit around Mars on Sept. 24, 2014: again, Isro was the fourth space agency to reach Mars, after Russia's Rka, U.S. Nasa and Europe's Esa. By getting India admitted into the elite and restricted club of nations that have launched a probe to Mars: and by giving, moreover, a moral slap in the face to China, whose mission to the Red Planet attempted two years earlier with the Yinghou - 1 probe had failed miserably. What's more, Mangalyaan, like Chandrayaan, had been designed entirely by Indian scientists and engineers, built in India by Indian labor with locally made materials, and had on board survey instruments strictly made in India. 1,350 kilograms, including instrumentation, of state-of-the-art technology with a cost-benefit ratio to be envied. A triumph of autarky, practically, at a very low cost: the budget for Chandrayaan 3, probably later overrun given the three-year delay in the initially planned 2020 launch, was about $75 million. Less than a Hollywood or even a Bollywood film. Looking at the achievements and modern space research centers, one can hardly believe that the Indian space program, which began in 1962, got its start in a tiny fishing village in Kerala, Thumba. The fishermen, gathered in the local church by the local bishop, had given their approval to the government project and their willingness to leave the village and be relocated elsewhere. The first studies, and the first rockets launched into orbit from India in 1963, originated there. Carried often by ox-drawn wagons, or by the scientists themselves, who rode bicycles from lab to lab with sophisticated technological components in their baskets. The first rockets were assembled in the former St Louis High School, which now houses a space museum, and the then Bishop of Trivandrum Peter Bernard Periera had ceded the rectory and church for the activities of two young scientists who had chosen the village for its geographic location, on the magnetic line of the Equator: Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program, and APJ Abdul Kalam who would later become president of India. The launch of Chandrayaan 3 was carried out from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, a seaside town near Hyderabad.Few people know, however, that the success of the mission was also due to the work of more than 100 ladies, scientists and engineers, who contributed to the launch. And that the associate director of the project, Kalpana Kalahasti, is a woman as well as another director of Chandrayaan 3, known as India's 'rocket woman,' who had been director of the Chandrayaan-2 mission and deputy director of operations of Mangalyaan: Ritu Karidhal Srivastava. And yet, while Indian scientists, politicians and media were beating the drums of national pride many, particularly in the West, were questioning whether it was appropriate for a nation like India to pursue a more or less ambitious space program. The criticism sounded something like this: in a nation where development still affects only a percentage of the population and where the majority of citizens suffer from basic shortages such as drinking water, electricity, sanitation, hospitals or decent schools no one, but no one, feels the need to send a probe to Mars or a rocket to the moon. To similar criticisms long ago, former director of the Indian Space Research Organization K. Radhakrishnan replied, "The question has been asked millions of times in the last fifty years, and the answer is and always will be: yes. It is necessary to find solutions to the problems of man and society." And indeed, scientists say, the space program has already contributed to the development of satellite, communications and remote sensing technologies and has been used to measure groundwater levels and predict climate change in the country, which is subject to cycles of drought and flooding. As for sanitation, electricity and drinking water, they have already been the subject of a widespread government campaign for years that is greatly improving living conditions in villages and small towns, but no one on this side of the world is paying attention. The BBC reporter condescendingly making these kinds of remarks sparked controversy galore: and indeed, if you look closely, when it comes to India the dear old myth of the 'good savage' is always lurking. Keeping India on the shelf under "sacred cows, Gandhi, the city of joy and Mother Teresa of Calcutta," with dutiful corollary of gurus and ashrams where Westerners can look for themselves, is reassuring. Much more reassuring than seeing a nation of more than a billion people take the chase to enter that world of which the West considers itself the exclusive repository. Especially when the nation in question refuses to make alliances that suit said West and allows itself to look out only for its own national interest. Social inequalities of course exist, and they are in some cases enormous. But they also exist in the United States or Russia, or China: countries to which no one, however, dares to suggest that they would do better to feed the thousands of homeless people without livelihoods or starving farmers before launching rockets into space. And anyway, as Isro points out, the space research budget amounts to a decimal fraction of the national budget against the much larger figures devoted to infrastructure and development. In figures, while the Isro's budget in the last fiscal year was less than $1.5 billion, the size of India's private space economy is already at least $6 billion and is expected to triple by 2025. With foreign investment, India aims to quintuple its share of the global launch market in the next decade. Not only that. New Delhi is also looking forward to its first mission to the International Space Station next year, in partnership with the United States. And while Ispro works on the launch of a solar observatory called Aditya-L1 and an Earth observation satellite built in collaboration with NASA, preparations continue for the Gaganyaan mission: a made-in-India spacecraft that will take three Indian astronauts to the Moon. Amid applause not only from India, but from the entire subcontinent for once agreeing to cheer India's success. Because, as Pakistani analyst Faran Jeffery argues, "The success of Chandrayaan 3 will be an inspiration in the decades to come not only for Indian children but also for children in all developing countries, starting with Pakistan. And for that, we have India and Indian scientists to thank. So, thank you Isro!"
Francesca Marino