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There’s no free launch
An agency that has stumbled hard through decades to indigenously develop a workable cryogenic engine, now wishes to post haste launch missions to Mars and Venus. Can somebody please tell ISRO to focus on Earth?

In October, 2008, India’s first unmanned lunar probe – Chandrayaan-1 – was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Despite failure of key machinery that led to the lunar probe cracking up before completing all its planned projects, ISRO claimed that as the probe had apparently completed 95% of its desired work, it was a resounding success. We, along with the nation, bought the reasoning. The probe did elicit enormous public admiration and took India’s space ambitions to an altogether new pedestal.

If we’re all done with the claps, can somebody please educate us on what exactly did India’s one billion plus civilian population gain in the whole affair? Ideologically, of course, we gained quite a bit (India became the fourth country to hoist its metaphorical flag on the moon); philosophically, much more – oh, what brimming pleasure it must have been for the ISRO scientists waddling away at thrilling videos of our mercurial lunar probe electrifyingly speeding away on the Moon. And yes, someone told us the probe found quite a plentiful of water too there. Okay, what else?

Clearly, either we are or ISRO is missing the whole forest for the trees. In what manner did India benefit in all the hype of the lunar vehicle? Add to all that brouhaha ISRO’s announcements of future missions planned to Mars, Venus and if you may, the Sun itself (forget the fact that Chandrayaan-1 supposedly failed because it couldn’t manage even the lunar heat) and you have the makings of munificent chest-thumping flag-hoisting projects that are going to cost India billions of dollars, with little real benefit to India. Really, how can one justify these behemoth missions unless ISRO proves a direct correlation of these missions in improving India’s defence, communications or economic competence?

The Mars mission got Rs.125 crores from the government in this year’s budget; this is a part of the Rs.6,715 crores overall budget for the space department this year. In 2009, the Planning Commission had even approved the mind-numbing Rs.12,400 crore manned space mission program of ISRO (planned for 2015).

Across the Atlantic, NASA justifies its essentialism to America by managing many national security programs for the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland security and other intelligence agencies. It’s not that ISRO doesn’t assist India’s various defence or communications programs – in fact, in projects where it has assisted thus, ISRO has been rightly praised to the heavens. The various SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) series, INSAT (Indian National Satellite) series, IRS (Indian Remote-sensing Satellite) series, GSAT (Geostationary satellite) series, Kalpana 1 (India’s first meteorological satellite) et al have all been exemplary examples of ISRO’s ‘practical’ commitment.
But great work on the front shouldn’t give ISRO blanket permission to invest the nation’s money into projects that might get featured as cover stories of National Geographic but have no practical worth. For example, it is quite shocking that ISRO has still not been able to develop its own navigation satellite. On July 22, 2012, K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of ISRO and the Space Commission, pointed out that currently, India is using navigation satellites of other countries. And the less we talk about spy satellites the better. ISRO launched India’s first indigenous spy satellite (RISAT-1) only a handful of months back in April 2012 – 55 years after the world’s first spy satellite had already been launched! And even cryogenic engines, after decades of trying, ISRO has had just one self-claimed success.

In other words, rather than wasting away billions of our dollars on missions to Mars, Venus, Sun and also to the Moon, ISRO should be slapped with a covenant that none of its projects will be approved by the government unless there is a culpable and significant advancement of India’s defence, technological or communications capabilities. Obama proposed in 2009 that NASA be merged with the Department of Defence. Why can’t ISRO be dealt with in a similar fashion in India?


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