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To the moon and back

To the moon and back
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First Published: Fri, Sep 05 2008. 12 00 AM IST

Updated: Fri, Sep 05 2008. 12 00 AM IST
Sometime later this year, a box with equipment worth Rs4 crore will crashland on the moon and smash to smithereens. But scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), the men and women behind this extravagant mission, will pump their fists and rejoice, because in the rubble of this giant gizmo will lie the Indian tricolour—perhaps tattered after the nearly 400,000km journey into space, but up there along with the flags of a handful of countries.
Destination Moon, authored by NDTV’s science editor Pallava Bagla and his wife Subhadra Menon, a science and health writer currently with the Public Health Foundation of India, is a layman’s read on the decisions, the people and the strategy that are driving India’s quest to conquer the moon.
The 193-page book attempts to “celebrate” India’s 66-year-old space programme: the baby satellites put together in tin-roof sheds in the 1970s; the indigenous satellite Chandrayaan-1 that will be vaulted from a little village in Andhra Pradesh later this year; and the promise of an Indian on the moon by 2025.
Many celebrated scientists and politicians, including Vikram Sarabhai and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have contributed to India’s space research drama, compelling enough to be a page-turner for science enthusiasts. However, the book doesn’t entirely accomplish that mission.
Early on, the authors devote two chapters to the moon itself: How well we know it, what it is made of and what scientists look for when they spend millions of dollars on moon missions that usually come back to earth with a few hundred pounds of debris.
The reasons for launching satellites are soon justified: Patients sitting in their houses in Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya, can get a second opinion live from doctors at the Christian Medical College in Vellore; farmers in Tamil Nadu can get the latest updates on the weather, commodity markets, and seed varieties via Insat-3A.
The launch of Cartosat-1 and Hamsat-5 in 2005. Isro
But the real story, the authors suggest, begins on 11 May 1999, the first anniversary of the Pokhran-II test. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, then the chief of Isro, is around 50 minutes into a presentation on India’s space programme when a blink-and-you-miss slide says: “India has the capabilities to undertake a mission to the moon.” The statement becomes a front-page story in The Indian Express the next day. Ever since, this mission has been Isro’s most ambitious project.
Bagla and Menon don’t devote as many chapters to the actual mission as they should have. It takes up only around 40 pages, which is one-fifth of the book. Within this too, entire sections, such as Kasturirangan’s lecture on India’s technological readiness for a moon mission, are needlessly repeated. The juicy bits—what went into the making of the five locally-developed instruments that would orbit and map the moon, the people behind it, their failures—don’t make it to the book at all.
That’s unforgivable for two reasons: Bagla had great access, as is evident in the book, to the top scientists involved with Chandrayaan-1 and Isro’s manufacturing facilities; and he specializes in breaking down scientific jargon into simple English. A simple search in Google or Isro.gov.in would throw up 90% of all the information in the book.
Phases of the moon captured by Nasa.
One of the reasons India’s space programme is lauded is that it’s largely indigenous. Thanks to technological sanctions after the early Pokhran tests, there’s a lot of drama in the great jugaad (ingenuity)—of figuring out how we make satellites that don’t burn themselves out, in a way that the Americans and Japanese haven’t done it, at a fraction of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget. This book doesn’t tell us how we do it.
There are some insightful interviews at the end of the book with Madhavan Nair, the current Isro chief, and Wu Ji, who heads the Chinese space programme. In the Cold War years, the space race had just two runners, the US and the erstwhile USSR; now the space race is in Asia. China, which is now India’s default competitor in everything with even a whiff of science, has already sent a man into space. Wu’s interview, pitted with that of Nair, brings out that sense of competition.
It also has refreshing perspective on the possible lunar littering that’s increasingly happening in the cosmos. Will India add to the debris, will the spent satellites, buried in the moon spew toxic fumes that could alter the pristine environment there?
The moon is still a virgin planet, with very little wind erosion. So, most of the constituents of its crusts are unaltered, especially the Helium-3 that it naturally stores, mere grams of which could potentially run our power plants for years.
Beginning this year, our space programme is likely to generate a lot of interest worldwide because moon missions, like nuclear tests, can affect public psyche and perceptions. Destination Moon comes at the right time, as a primer for students and non-scientists—a quick history lesson on what kicked off India’s lunar ambitions. The authors deserve a thumbs up for attempting to answer the million-dollar question: Will India make it to the moon—and back?
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First Published: Fri, Sep 05 2008. 12 00 AM IST