How to survive if you don’t feel proud of our Moon feat

There is one mainstream criticism of India’s space mission—how can a nation where children die of curable diseases and every big city is unliveable waste resources on space missions? (ANI)
There is one mainstream criticism of India’s space mission—how can a nation where children die of curable diseases and every big city is unliveable waste resources on space missions? (ANI)


India is right in its space pursuit but success needn’t mean the country’s global prestige has gone up

I do not feel any pride in India’s Moon landing. It did bring me low-grade joy, like an Indian victory in Test cricket against Bangladesh. But pride is a giant emotion. I wonder what made the others proud? Did they imagine that they share the same genes as the scientists who planned the mission? Or did they elect excellent space-faring politicians? Or maybe they are beautiful hive-minds, who not only feel pride, but also shame when India does shameful things? Or maybe they donated money to the space programme? Or, maybe they sacrificed their well-being by asking their children to pick space science and seek government jobs instead of pursuing computer science and emigrating. Why were they proud? What is this thing called pride? Maybe their localities have excellent roads that do not resemble the lunar surface, and the same government that sent metal to the Moon has also figured out how to keep traffic signals working and runs excellent hospitals, or has cleaned the air of cancerous particles? Maybe the joy in pride is not thinking so much about it; maybe thinking is the enemy of feeling. You cannot feel anything if you also want clarity.

What India’s Moon landing tells me though is that if India can do it, many nations can. And if they don’t because it is too expensive, then it means they pay their people high wages, while India underpays its scientists and just about anybody down the chain. There is an entertaining piece of data that says that every Moon mission of India has been cheaper than a typical Hollywood big-budget film set in outer space. But I do not believe these missions are as cheap as India officially claims. I suspect they are subsidized in ways that are not apparent on paper. In any case, as an amiable Indian rocket scientist himself told me once, rocket science is an easy form of science; not trivial, but still easier than solving malaria or other major scientific efforts. Rocket science, oddly, is no rocket science.

This is not how most Indians feel, but then I am not alone either. How must people who have not found a reason to be proud of India live in the shadow of all this chest-thumping? How must we survive our times when we do not feel how most of the nation feels about things? Maybe we lie low, and confide only in those who are closest to us? But there is loneliness in that, in not being a part of national feelings.

The origins of space-faring are in national pride. It was heavily subsidized by nationalism in both the US and Russia. But then, at the time, those two nations were truly doing what no one else could. Later, the passion of the masses died down. The US, especially, cut budgets for several programmes. More complex forms of science rose and they became the focus, which eventually contributed to space science. But space continues to hold appeal in India, and that points to a scarcity of reasons for pride.

There is one mainstream criticism of India’s space mission—how can a nation where children die of curable diseases and every big city is unliveable waste resources on space missions? But this is not a robust argument. Should a nation solve only one problem at a time, and keep somewhat esoteric ideas in abeyance until the more difficult ones are sorted? That does not make sense. India is right in pursuing space, but it is wrong about one of its important justifications for its Moon and Mars missions—that the missions have branded India as scientifically advanced. There is a popular view that with the recent Moon landing, India has entered a “prestigious club" of four nations. But that is not how prestige works. Instead, the entry of India reduces the prestige of Moon landings itself. We see the principle at work in the prestige of academic institutions and entrance exams. The old elite lend the initial prestige, which becomes an allure that makes the lower rungs work hard to achieve it. But their entry into the prestigious fortress reduces its very prestige.

If India wants its space-faring to lend it a certain scientific heft in global perception, it needs to do a host of mundane things first, like create a more orderly nation. As of now, if anyone lands in Delhi, or worse, in Mumbai, or by even worse misfortune, Bangalore, the full civic dysfunction of the country is apparent in no time.

Also, India continues to be in the news for things that usually happen in some of the most backward regions in the world. In that light, India’s ability to land on the Moon takes away the veneer of sophistication from such missions.

But all this is irrelevant to those who are moved by national pride. Pride is a low-hanging fruit of happiness. I do not grudge them that. Many people go through their whole lives doing nothing they can be proud off, so why not usurp a bit from the nation? Maybe national pride is a natural resource, like a river or a forest. It is not without important uses.

But, somehow, people do not feel the same way about shame. People don’t look around at the corruption and mediocrity in evidence, even when they take two hours every day to travel a mere 20 kilometres in a city, and feel the shame of it all. Even though they probably have a greater role in our disgrace than what is exceptional about some of us.

Or, maybe people do feel shame. I was looking in the wrong places. I was chatting with fintech entrepreneur Kunal Shah in a totally different context, about human nature in general, and he said, “I guess pride is a side of shame."

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