(Author’s Note October 22 2008: Please see also “Complete History of Mankind’s Moon Missions: An Indian Citizen’s Letter to the ISRO Chairman” published elsewhere here today.)
INDIA’S MOON MISSION
First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page, August 13 2006. www.thestatesman.net
If India’s Moon project planned for September 2007 is successful, it will be something for everyone to cheer loudly about. The Moon is Earth’s single important natural satellite, and as planetary moons go, it is unusually large in size compared to Earth. Our five-stage PSLV rocket is planned to place a scientific satellite around it. In token political gestures, NASA and the Europeans may provide scientific payloads too.
The central question is whether the Indian satellite now being built will ever succeed in reaching lunar orbit ~ an immensely complex task which deserves to be urgently reconsidered. It is of the highest national importance to try to ensure beforehand that our mission succeeds if it is going to be tried at all.
Yet neither our much-vaunted scientific establishment nor our political decision-makers have any sense of urgency about it. Let it be clearly said it will be simply not good enough this time for the Government of India’s scientists, bureaucrats and politicians to shrug off failures as they have been prone to do by saying, “Oh, we’ll do better next time”. Wasteful expenditure of public resources (paid for by endless deficit finance in an inconvertible currency) is common across all government departments, but in this most dramatic of missions, the hopes and aspirations of one thousand million Indians, and especially hundreds of millions of wide-eyed children, will become focussed on the launch. It will be a severe blow to national prestige, morale and self-confidence, as well as a display of scientific and technological incompetence, if there is failure at any stage of this difficult enterprise.
Indeed, it would be better to do the job in discrete and successful stages or not do it at all than to fail at it most spectacularly.
All Indians need to and can come to know what is involved. A trip to the Moon requires a spacecraft reach an “escape” velocity of some 40,000 km per hour. At a distance of some 324,000 km, the spacecraft escapes Earth’s gravity and comes to a “standstill” or “neutral” point, a fictional station on the Earth-Moon axis, still some 32,000 km (or about 19 Moon radii) from the Moon. The Moon’s gravity then gradually takes over, drawing the spacecraft faster and faster towards the Moon, to either land on its surface or go into orbit around it ~ though to avoid a fatal impact crashing into the Moon, the spacecraft may require retrorockets to slow itself down.
The numerous sources of possible failure include (a) launch-failure causing the spacecraft to never reach let aside exit from terrestrial space onto a path to the Moon, all through belts of intense heat and radiation; (b) trajectory-failure causing the spacecraft to move wrongly through cislunar and translunar space, miss the Moon and go into solar orbit like everything else; (c) failing to enter lunar orbit, crashing into the Moon instead; (d) failing to transmit intended data. Only if all these and more are avoided, can our Moon mission as presently defined be considered successful.
India’s mission will be mankind’s 85th to the Moon on record. There is a vast amount of knowledge already gained in other countries, almost all of which is publicly available. The era of international competitions in space-research and exploration started between Russia and America half a century ago and it ended after the Cold War. Since the 1980s, the two space superpowers changed emphasis away from the Moon, towards creating re-usable vehicles like the Shuttle and permanent space-stations, unmanned probes to Earth’s planetary neighbours, as well as major space-telescopes which now provide unprecedented visions of the galaxy we inhabit. Now there has been new interest in the Moon again, and there have been successful American, European and Japanese missions recently. Even if our Moon mission succeeds, we will be placed technologically at a point still 40 years behind the world’s leaders in space exploration, and it would be self-delusion to think we lead in space research in any way whatsoever.
Indeed such a realisation is cause for sober reflection and critical questions. Late-starting space missions like the Europeans and Japanese, have all intelligently absorbed the lessons from the Russian and American projects. Has India done so?
Have our space scientists absorbed into their work for the Moon mission next year all the existing lessons available? Are there people at ISRO wholly conversant with what went wrong with every case of launch-failure, trajectory-failure, instrumentation-failure etc causing spacecraft to fail to reach or leave Earth orbit, or to miss the Moon, or fail to communicate etc? If so, have all those lessons been absorbed into our mission’s planning? If not, why not? Can we be assured now that we are not headed to be making the same mistakes as have been already made by others? It is not the cause of nationalism but the cause of unwisdom which shall be served if we repeat the known mistakes of others.
We are fond of saying our space programme is low in costs, and indeed it is when compared internationally. But there are always domestic opportunity costs, and there may be much better and more cost-effective ways of creating a scientifically-minded population in India. E.g., all of astrology assumes a geocentric Ptolomaic solar system — a fierce Government-led all-India campaign against astrology, and promotion instead of the heliocentric Copernican solar system, may do much more for the cause of rationality and basic scientific education in the country today than a failed Moon mission. After all, we still have purported physicists and directors of national technological institutes who are astrology-believers!
The Government of India’s scientists, bureaucrats and politicians must become wholly candid and transparent with the public whose resources they are spending about the exact significance of our Moon project, the risks of failure, and how these are being addressed. So far that has not been done. Little more than a year away from the launch, all we seem to have in the public domain are pious hopes being expressed and a wish-list of what scientific results might be like once the spacecraft is in lunar orbit. The real question is whether our satellite will succeed in reaching lunar orbit at all.
Indeed the present aim may be far too ambitious for 2007, and may need to be broken down into several stages. E.g. improving rocketry first to aim at a “parking orbit” around Earth permitting ground control to better calculate trajectories to the Moon, then to flyby the Moon, then to attempt to go into lunar orbit.
It may be wise to postpone carrying scientific payloads until much more experience has been successfully gained in rocketry through terrestrial, cislunar, translunar and lunar space. We should also bear in mind we have not been major manufacturers of engines, aircraft bodies, computers or communications and imaging equipment ~ all of which are vital to this enterprise.
Furthermore, let all the equations involved in the rocketry, and even whether Newtonian or Einsteinian frames of reference are being used, be released into the public domain for scrutiny by everyone in the country and the world. If someone says this will benefit the Pakistanis, the intelligent political response would be to invite the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Singaporeans Indonesians and our other neighbours to join our mission. Science is universal, and belongs to all mankind. All mundane disputes appear petty when seen from selenocentric space ~ which is the one good reason to want to try to reach it.