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Author’s Note, December 28 2008:  This post of mine has been superceded ex post facto by the following text: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