Have India’s rocket men sent a nation on a wrong-headed quest for status?

The Indian Space Research Organisation acts as a lightning rod for criticism from those who ask why such a poor country diverts so much cash into putting satellites into orbit? Kapil Komireddi seeks to answer this complex question.

Indian scientists and engineers from the Indian Space Research Organisation monitor the Mars Orbiter Mission at the ISRO telemetry, tracking and command centre in Bangalore. Manjunath Kiran / AFP Photo
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The space age began when the Soviets hoisted the first artificial Earth satellite into orbit in 1957. India joined this epoch six years later. Reaching for the skies at a time when an overwhelming majority of its people, impoverished and illiterate, scratched a living from agriculture seemed to its critics like a dereliction of terrestrial duties. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, disagreed. Science, he argued, was indispensable to ending the problems of “hunger and poverty, insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom”. India, though poor, had vast reserves of talent. And Nehru recruited Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, an exceedingly gifted pair of scientists, to advance his vision. Collectively, this Cantabrigian trio – urbane, privileged, patrician – succeeded in convincing the Cold War rivals to collaborate on India’s incipient space programme.

India made its first foray into space in November 1963. The Soviets supplied a computer and a helicopter. The French provided the payload. The Americans contributed the Nike-Apache research rocket that was lofted into space. The only thing Indian about this mission was its ingenuity. On the site deemed ideal for the launch, in a village on India’s Malabar Coast, stood a church dating back to the seventeenth-century. Religious feelings, especially of minorities, were fiercely guarded under Nehru; the launch could not proceed without the consent of Kerala’s Christian community. After brief negotiations, however, the custodians of the church gave away the building. A commemorative plaque at the old church, now converted to a museum, reads: “The church authorities and the parishioners decided in a gracious and exemplary manner to dedicate this place of worship on the altar of science”. Components of the rocket were transported on the backs of bicycles; heavier equipment was moved in oxcarts.

On the evening of November 21, the night before John F Kennedy, America’s great champion of the space race, was shot in Dallas, the rocket ascended into the skies, releasing a triumphant burst of sodium cloud and heralding the birth of India’s ambitious space research programme.

By the end of the decade, the government had created the Indian Space Research Organisation. Its costs, thanks in large part to New Delhi’s close relationship with Moscow, remained low. The Soviets launched India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, gratis. They charged heavily discounted fees for subsequent launches. But the Indo-Soviet cooperation concealed the rapid development of India’s own capabilities.

The USSR’s demise was greeted by India’s governing elite as a calamity – but the Indian Space Research Organisation, which benefited so greatly from Soviet largesse, suffered virtually no adverse consequence. Indeed, today it is an important player in the commercial space market – a reliable and cost-effective vehicle for foreign governments and space entrepreneurs seeking to launch satellites. Last year, it placed 20 satellites in two different orbits. Last month, it deposited 104 rockets in orbit using a single rocket – surpassing by a substantial margin the record of 37 satellites held by Russia’s space agency.

The Indian Space Research Organisation has travelled far, but the criticism directed at it has remained largely the same. Why is a poor country diverting resources to a space programme?

Part of the reason for the persistence of such disapproval is the seeming neglect of the original purpose of space research: to improve, as Sarabhai saw it, the lives of India’s poor. India, for all its progress, is still home to the largest population of the world’s poorest people. Its satellites have connected Indian villages and helped save lives during natural disasters. But how, for instance, did the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars mission serve the original goal? The fact that many Indians take pride in the organisation’s achievement in making India the first country in the world to install a space probe in Mars’s orbit on the first attempt is hardly a reason not to ask what the scientific and social benefits of the mission are. A former head of the organisation denounced the Mars mission as “moonshine”, a vanity project with no scientific value. The economist Jean Dreze linked it to the “Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”.

Such criticisms are not easy to refute. But they overlook a key fact: China. India’s space programme can no longer be viewed in isolation from China’s. India’s decisions in space are driven by the urgent need to play catch-up with Beijing. China has militarised its space programme. In 2013, for instance, it tested a second anti-satellite missile test (the first occurred in 2007). India declared that it had the capability to develop its own anti-satellite missiles on short notice, but stopped short of testing. The point of the Mars mission is to belong in the vanguard of spacefaring powers. To fall behind in space research and exploration, as far as New Delhi is concerned, is to cede ground to adversaries.

The Indian Space Research Organisation, in any case, has not abandoned its original purpose. In the 1970s, Soviet scientists handed their Indian counterparts lunar samples. And India is now at the forefront of an ambitious plan to mine He3 – a helium isotope – from lunar dust. He3 can be used as a fuel in reactors to generate energy through non-radioactive nuclear fusion. Ten tonnes of He3, it has been estimated, can provide as much energy as a billion tonnes of coal. China has already made significant preparations to tap this resource. There are reports that its Chang-e lunar programme, which began with a robotic mission in 2007, may culminate in the not too distant future in a manned outpost on the Moon’s surface to oversee the extraction of He3. New Delhi is once again playing catch-up with Beijing. The Indian Space Research Organisation has pledged to make India energy independent by 2030 with the help of He3. This may be unrealistic, but even modest successes on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s part will have major implications for India. Desalination of seawater is only one of the energy-intensive but necessary projects that the organisation can help accelerate. A country with a coastline as long as India’s should never have to be crippled by water crises.

The prevalence of poverty is not a reason to abandon India’s advances in the sphere of space research. Indians should strive to emulate the work ethic of its space scientists, not condemn them. The budget allocated to the Indian Space Research Organisation is just over $1bn a year. In a country rife with corruption and paralysed by bureaucratic inertia, it is a towering symbol of excellence. Part of the reason social activists resent the organisation is not because it is wasteful but because it provides endless opportunities for boasting by India’s elites.

Judged purely on its performance the Indian Space Research Organisation is arguably the most successful of any Indian entity. This is why the prime minister of India has sought breathlessly to co-opt it in service of his narrowly nationalist enterprise. Its achievements are brandished by Narendra Modi’s myrmidons as evidence of India’s growing might. But the Indian Space Research Organisation did not fall from the skies. It emerged from Nehru’s aspiration to cultivate in Indians a “scientific temper”. Its effloresce has coincided with a regression in politics.

Nehru’s office is now occupied by the most atavistic prime minister in India’s history. Mr Modi has slashed research budgets for laboratories; and, under his aegis, the Indian Science Congress, which for a century served as a forum for some of the world’s brightest minds, has degenerated into a platform for Hindu chauvinists and charlatans. Surviving this obscurantist period in India’s unfolding history may yet be the Indian Space Research Organisation’s greatest challenge.

Kapil Komireddi is a frequent contributor to The National