Excuse me, but ISRO’s self-congratulation is absurdly premature!

Author’s Note, December 28 2008:  This post of mine has been superceded ex post facto by the following text:

Chandrayaan adds a little good cheer! Well done, ISRO!

The news that Chandrayaan-I has sent back scientific data as intended is excellent.  ISRO has my warm congratulations at last! Iron is apparently very abundant in lunar rock so discovering it is not revolutionary but even so, the fact India has a successful lunar orbiter which is sending back signals and scientific data is simply delightful. It brings good cheer in a season marred by the Mumbai massacres and the clouds of war.

On November 9 2008, I had incidentally diagnosed the basis of my own earlier pessimism about Chandrayaan as follows, reproduced here again:
“I have been very pessimistic about Chandrayaan-I’s prospects and I am delighted to hear ISRO say it has been successful in placing the spacecraft in lunar orbit.   I have had to wonder where, precisely, my pessimism was mistaken.  The answer is that I had completely left out in my thinking the vast technological progress that has taken place in telecommunications  and telemetry in the last 40 years.  I had surveyed the history of similar attempts by the USSR and USA in the 1960s and that was a history littered by failures of  many sorts.    Let aside rocket-launch failures, the other main sources of failure were in trajectories and in communications.  I have been deeply concerned that India was simply going to fall in the same pitfalls along the way.   But  what I neglected was that our attempt was being made forty years  later and the world has seen enormous technological progress during that time, especially in telecom.  The Soviet and American missions took place in the early 1960s when, for example, colour television hardly existed.  Today, in 2008, ISRO seems to have managed control and guidance systems that have been up to the (very complex) task of placing the spacecraft in lunar orbit.  Hats off to ISRO if it turns out they have succeeded, and cheers if they actually manage to get the scientific data they have wished to receive.

The same mistake that I made here in a  field not my own is what I have myself pointed out being made  in a different context regarding the current world financial crisis. Viz., I said in my September 18 2008 Business Standard article “October 1929? Not!” that the world since the 1929 stock market crash had witnessed so much technological progress that the current crisis could not be compared to the one back then.”


Hats off to all at ISRO!

Subroto Roy

The original text was as follows:


Chandrayaan-1 had not completed a single “parking orbit” around Earth (in fact had just reached the atmosphere above Indonesia) before a dozen scientific bureaucrats at ISRO were pouring forth self-congratulations in front of TV cameras — and Indian television news media, including the privately-owned NDTV, were proclaiming “Moon Mission Successful”!

Hello, hello, ISRO and Indian journalists: all of you need a serious reality-check!

Of course India has put satellites into terrestrial space which has been wonderful for telecommunications etc.

But that is not what the present mission is purportedly about.

Please wait until we have managed to get Chandrayan

to escape Earth’s gravity,

reach the Moon’s vicinity,

not crash into the Moon,

or miss it altogether,

(I leave out getting into lunar orbit itself, let aside transmit any data from lunar orbit)

before all the self-congratulations.

No one should want to contribute, after all, to what might still be seen as a large and expensive Government of India publicity/propaganda stunt.   Remember that credibility is all important to the good scientist.  (Just because New Delhi may be delusional does not mean all-India needs to be so as well.)

Subroto Roy, Kolkata


12 Responses to “Excuse me, but ISRO’s self-congratulation is absurdly premature!”

  1. Chaduvari Says:

    But, they were celebrating the success of the first leg of the journey. The Chairman said that they had successfully completed the first leg of the journey.
    I don’t see anything wrong or premature in that.

  2. drsubrotoroy Says:

    I am sorry but we cannot keep celebrating the same thing over and over again. Celebrating a PSLV launch yet again is simply ridiculous. Especially when the stated task is so much more vastly larger in ambition. The word “Moon” and the word “historic” should not have been mentioned this morning if what ISRO’s bureaucrats wanted to do was celebrate a rocket launch into terrestrial space. (This is like watching replays of some past innings played by this or that cricketer whenever.)

  3. Prashant W Says:

    I think Dr Roy is being overly critical. Success or failure apart, such missions are a huge boost to the morale of a country and its image in the eyes of a world. Even to imagine and execute such big projects are beyond the scope of most countries of the world. If we keep following in the footsteps of others, or waiting for them to help us in everything, we can never lead the way. So chances need to be taken. Why criticize the project? Just because it will lose some money in a scientific experimentation? I think this is well spent given that we waste much more in corruption, etc. There is a place for every type of development in progress – from helping poor people to splurging on weapons and space research. es, there are chances it may fail, but the success has much bigger returns so its worth all risks.

  4. drsubrotoroy Says:

    ISRO has achieved nothing it had not already achieved until and unless the spacecraft leaves Earth orbit successfully in the Moon’s vicinity, say, for example, near the fictional “standstill” point on the Earth-Moon axis, 19 Moon radii away from the Moon. That might be a minimal benchmark of success even if the spacecraft fails to enter lunar orbit (hence the scientific payloads would have been wasted). It has been premature for ISRO to have been felicitating itself or for politicians and a compliant media to be cheer-leading well before such an achievement takes place. If there is a failure to leave Earth orbit successfully in the Moon’s vicinity, the whole thing could seem a publicity/propaganda stunt in retrospect. ISRO should have known this and should have not started leading the country in celebration until there was something to celebrate. I think what might have happened is that they were afraid of a launch-failure requiring the whole thing to be aborted; when the launch was successful, that was the benchmark they felt they had needed to meet. But we have had successful launches of PSLV before; the real problems may be trajectory-failure and instrumentation-failure. Please see my Letter to the ISRO Chairman with the “Complete History of Mankind’s Moon Missions”.

  5. Optimistic Indian Says:

    Celebrating the completion of first leg is very important , as it gives us hope and pride even if it fails in further leg. It’s a real achievement for India to try to put a mission to moon , even if we fail we should try again, not all scientific experiments are successful. But by sending the mission to moon we have shown the the world that they cannot restrict our development by putting restrictions and sanctions. We might have other challenges like poverty corruption, but these challenges should not stop us in growing in areas like space which might be really important for our future generations. I really feel proud when I read news about each successful leg of the mission. I want to celebrate each leg, and wish we will get more chance of celebration in future. Jai Hind !

  6. drsubrotoroy Says:

    Apropos the previous commentator, I share his delight if Chandrayaan succeeds and is able to be placed into Lunar orbit and comes to send any of the intended data. That would show a remarkable and, to my mind, unexpected ability on ISRO’s part in managing control and guidance systems. (I have said I shall be happy to eat my words in such an eventuality; e.g. by taking a print out of them, chopping them up fine, and putting them into my curry). But I do think celebrating the launch of the rocket was absurd in the way it was done as that in itself was something that had been already achieved by India before.

  7. Ravi Chandra Says:

    The media may have boasted about the mission as a success but ISRO scientists did not claim we have reached the moon after immediate success of the launch.The new PSLV C11 is unique type of rocket that differs from its predecessors as it carried a different kind of payload and also has extra boosters fitted to it. No other space agency has taken such a huge leap from placing satellites in Orbit to launching satellites to moon within a single mission.The pool of scientists that ISRO has is the best in the world in developing the technology within such a short time.They knew the dynamics about the mission and they exactly knew what would be the crucial part in the mission.Ultimately a successful launch was most critical and they achieved it remarkably.

  8. drsubrotoroy Says:

    Apropos the previous comment, certainly climbing Everest today is something worthwhile and not nothing though it is not the same thing as having climbed it with Tenzing and Hilary (or perhaps Mallory).

  9. Gopal Sharma Says:

    I am Gopal Sharma, email gsharma@gmail.com. I believe the Indian Moon Mission has not succeeded and ISRO’s leadership has behaved falsely. More details are available from me by email.

  10. Ajay Says:

    Even if Chandrayaan failed, as you pessimistically predicted, ISRO would have something to defend. Re celebrations, ISRO has to handle the media and public –people want ISRO to say what they would like to hear. I do agree ISRO has achieved nothing new by launching Chandrayaan into the orbit; ISRO always considers successful launch itself to be a major success, let it be Chandrayaan or INSAT or IRS launched by PSLV or GSLV. There is no rule that we cannot celebrate something which we have already achieved. ISRO is getting so popular that some are unable to digest the success and put brakes on ISRO; new challenges for ISRO but I am sure they can face pessimists after they have successfully battled a lot of things. I would consider SLV-3 successful launch as more important, probably the most important achievement of our space organisation.

    Another fact regarding old exploration missions attempted by US and Soviet Union is that there was serious space race going on. They launched so many missions in just one year. it wasn’t about failure or success rate, it was only about who reached there first. They didn’t mind even if majority of missions failed. they probably didn’t plan that carefully or investigate the failure of every single space mission as they do it today. that was the kind of political will and public support they had. Now imagine if they had pessimists overwhelming supporters. Space science never would have advanced so much. Today there is nothing like that. Interest in exploration died gradually as there was nothing interesting in moon or other planets.

  11. drsubrotoroy Says:

    I am not quite sure what we are supposed to think about Chandrayaan at this point. Did it reach the vicinity of the moon? I have no reason to doubt that it did. That was the criterion of success I had set it, and so I have been quite happy to cheer that success. Is it presently in lunar orbit? Is it sending back scientific images and other data as planned? Indian science is all rather too bureaucratic and not open-spirited — if Chandrayaan has been in fact a resounding success, it needs its own website with accurate information regularly updated for the public’s benefit, especially to encourage the wonderment of children, and not just in India. Would someone please post the link to such a website if it exists?


  12. Mathew Daniel Says:

    ISRO is fooling people. The real truth will come out after the removal of the corrupt.

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