Neglecting technological progress was the basis of my pessimism about Chandrayaan

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.

Subroto Roy,

Kolkata, November 9 2008

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Author’s Note, December 28 2008:  This post of mine has been superceded ex post facto by the following text: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

My Subjective Probabilities on India’s Moon Mission

[Author’s Note December 29 2008: Please see my ‘Chandrayaan adds a little good cheer! Well done ISRO!”  — as a good Bayesian would, I  have had to update my subjective probabilities ex post and gladly so!]

The subjective probability I would place on the odds

of our Moon rocket leaving earth orbit successfully is 20:1 against,
of it reaching the moon’s vicinity about 50:1 against,
of it entering lunar orbit successfully about 100:1 against,
and of it transmitting half the data it is intended to about 200:1 against.

Going to the Moon requires a spacecraft reach an “escape” velocity of some 40,000 km per hour. After some 324,000 km, the craft 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 (about 19 Moon radii) away 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.

All Indians will be delighted if the Moon-launch  tomorrow is successful. At the same time, all Indians, especially millions of wide-eyed children, will be more than disappointed if ISRO’s plans fail through avoidable error.  It was of the highest national importance to try to ensure beforehand that the Indian mission succeeded if it is going to be tried at all.  That has not taken place.

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 in the solar system;

(C) failing to enter lunar orbit, crashing into the Moon instead;

(D) failing to transmit intended data from lunar orbit.

Only if all these and more are avoided, can ISRO’s Moon mission be considered successful.

Here are some questions the PM and his Government needed to answer before the liftoff but failed to do so:

1. Is there an indigenous rocket powerful enough for a spacecraft to reach 40,000 kmph, the escape-velocity from Earth’s gravity?  If a foreign rocket is being used in whole or in part, what are the terms of collaboration?

2. India’s will be mankind’s 85th mission to the Moon on record and there  was a vast amount of publicly available knowledge already gained in other countries; did ISRO do a survey of all previous Moon missions by other countries, especially the USSR and USA since 1957 to investigate and analyse the numerous errors and failures they made?  If not, why did it not do so ?  If we did absorb all existing lessons available, and there are people at ISRO wholly conversant with what went wrong with every case of launch-failure, trajectory-failure, instrumentation-failure causing spacecraft to fail to reach or leave Earth orbit, or miss the Moon, or fail to communicate etc, what identifiable improvements did this learning cause in our Mission-planning?  The cause of nationalism is not served if we repeat the known mistakes of others;  why were we made to feel so confident we were not headed to be making the same mistakes as had been already made by others?

3. It is a blow to national prestige and self-confidence if there is failure at any stage of this difficult enterprise and it may have been better to do the job in discrete and successful stages or not do it at all than fail at it most spectacularly; was any thought given to breaking down the present aim into several stages – e.g., improving rocketry 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? Why are scientific payloads being planned to be carried even before we have gained any experience in successful rocketry through terrestrial, cislunar, translunar and lunar space?

4. Our country has not been a major manufacturer of engines, aircraft bodies, computers or communications and imaging equipment, all vital to this enterprise; did we import the components to be used and if so, which ones?

5. Science is universal, and belongs to all mankind; all mundane international disputes appear petty when seen from selenocentric space which is the one good reason to want to try to reach it; why not release into the public domain for scrutiny by everyone in the country and the world the equations involved in the rocketry, and even whether Newtonian or Einsteinian frames of reference are being used?

Subroto Roy
Kolkata, October 21 2008

India’s Moon Mission

(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

Subroto Roy

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.