India gears for first mission to the Moon

The country's first unmanned mission to the Moon, blasts off this week from the Satish Dhawan Space Station near Chennai.

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DELHI // There are not many Indian exhibits in the small museum dedicated to space exploration at Jawaharlal Nehru's former estate in central Delhi. Pride of place is given to a Soviet landing capsule that carried three cosmonauts - including the first Indian in space - back to Earth in 1984. Another small board commemorates the life of Kalpana Chawla, an American astronaut of Indian origin who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003.

But from Wednesday the museum can add a new, truly Indian display, as Chandrayaan-1, the country's first unmanned mission to the Moon, blasts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Station near the south-eastern city of Chennai. The launch will fulfil the dreams of Nehru, India's first prime minister, who wrote about the solar system while under arrest in the 1930s and whose determination that his country play a role in space exploration led to meetings with Yuri Gagarin and Albert Einstein.

"I think the launch of Chandrayaan would have made him very happy," said Anurag Garg, a scientist who works as a guide at the museum. While India has carried out over 21 successful rocket launches bearing Earth-orbiting satellites since 1980 - including one earlier this year to release 10 satellites, the heaviest ever payload - it has never put an object into space before. If successful, the launch will see India join the United States, Russia, China and Japan as the only countries to have independently sent a mission to the Moon.

It could also mark the beginning of what some call a 21st century Asian version of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with India and China both planning to put a man on the Moon by the end of the next decade. "If you ask the space agencies, they will always deny there is a space race between the two, but subliminally there is a competition issue," said Pallava Bagla, the author of Destination Moon, which chronicles the 36-year history of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

For years, ISRO confined itself to projects with practical social applications such as meteorological, mapping and communications satellites to help the country's poor rural population - an emphasis which means India has the largest constellation of communications satellites in the Asia-Pacific region. But as the economy booms, so India's desire for wider international prestige is growing. "The launching of Chandrayaan is a redefinition of global politics," said Mr Bagla. "This is India's coming out party."

Chandrayaan - which means Moon vehicle in Sanskrit - is a source of huge national pride because much of the technology is home grown, as a result of the sanctions placed on India after it tested a nuclear device in 1974. That very sense of pride is now fuelling India's ambitions to achieve more in a narrow time frame. ISRO is aiming to launch a second Chandrayaan in 2010 and to put an Indian "gaganaut" in space by 2016. Most ambitiously, it is aiming to put an Indian on the Moon by 2020, the same year China is hoping to put one of its "taikonauts" there.

China is already several steps ahead of India in terms of manned space missions. In Oct 2003, Yang Liwei successfully orbited the Earth and last month a Chinese astronaut walked in space. Most worrying to India, in Jan 2007 China demonstrated its ability to shoot down a target in space - a capability shared only by Russia and the US. But scientists at ISRO are playing down any talk of a space race, instead emphasising the scientific and long-term utilitarian aims of the project.

"This is nothing like a race. We're playing against ourselves," said T K Alex, director of the ISRO Satellite Centre. "Most of our activity is related to society and has a direct impact. The other motivation is technological development." Once in orbit around the Moon Chandrayaan will spend two years mapping its surface and searching for signs of water and rich mineral deposits, including Helium-3. In addition, a probe will bury an India tricolour under its surface.

"In the 60s, there was a lot of activity from the US and Russia - they both did manned Moon missions. But that was a long time ago. Now there is a lot of interest in looking at the Moon again, in much more detail," said Mr Alex. ISRO has also had to defend itself from accusations that a space programme is an extravagance in a country where more than 800 million people live on less than US$2 (Dh7.3) a day.

"We're one of the most economical organisations. Our expenditure for a mission of this type is less than a third of what others would spend," said Mr Alex. India's early focus on satellites means it has become a leader in the field, and it estimates for every dollar spent so far on its programme, it has earned two back from the launch of foreign satellites. ISRO's annual budget is under $1 billion compared to Nasa's budget of $17bn.

Chandrayaan itself, made at cost of 3.8bn rupees (Dh286m), came in at about half the price of China's lunar orbiter and should have double the lifespan. "You get much more bang for your buck in India," said Mr Bagla. If the weather holds, Chandrayaan will blast off at 6.20 on Wednesday morning. The 1.38-tonne spacecraft will take approximately eight days to travel about 386,240km before reaching its final orbit 96km above the surface of the Moon.

"We started from very humble beginnings" said Mr Alex. "Emotionally, it's a very big event."