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All Set For Space-time

ISRO was founded to meet India’s socio-economic needs. Today, having nearly achieved its agenda, it is now working on its space programmes

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When people recall the events that took place in our country in 1984, they revisit the scenes of violence unleashed by the decision to storm the terrorist-infested Golden Temple, and the horrendous riots that took place thereafter, targeting the Sikh community. Before the year ran out, the Bhopal gas tragedy shook the nation, taking about 2,000 lives. Many more have died since, due to residual medical complications.

The media noted that the Indo-Soviet space flight was the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for our country. That eight-day trip captured the collective imagination of our country folk. Although the event lifted the spirits of the nation, the space flight itself was more about optics and politics than science.

I have often been asked if we, as a nation, have erred in not following it up with many more space flights since then. The answer, if seen in context, has to be in the negative. The Indian space programme was born out of and guided by Vikram Sarabhai’s vision, succinctly articulated by him as: “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”

In the Indian context, the manned space flight in 1984 was an activity well before its time and ISRO, rightly, declined to divert its resources and focus towards starting a manned space programme, while it was still in the process of realising Sarabhai’s vision of using space technology, for our country’s socio-economic needs. Accordingly, ISRO was not involved in the Indo-Soviet Space Mission, apart from providing some peripheral support. The task was given to the Indian Air Force instead and I became the sole beneficiary of a lifetime’s opportunity.

ISRO has succeeded in positively impacting the day-to-day lives of our citizens, employing its satellite-based communications network. During its remarkable journey, the organisation has gained impressive expertise in the capture and interpretation of earth resources imagery and has also become a vendor for launching payloads into near earth orbit. An impressive track record, grudgingly acknowledged by experts world over that India runs the cheapest and the most successful space programme in the world.

This begs the question: How does ISRO keep succeeding while our other hi-tech, government-funded research and development institutions continue to deliver precious little, in the same time frame? The answer, I believe, lies in the way ISRO is governed; both, by the ministry responsible for running it, and internally. For one, the portfolio of space, traditionally, has been held by the Prime Minister whose pre-occupations with running the country, pretty much leaves the running of the organisation in the hands of chairman ISRO who also doubles as Secretary, Department of Space. This arrangement removes many layers of bureaucratic control, thus making for an efficient, result-oriented arrangement. This helped ISRO move from the iconic image of a rocket’s nose cone being transported to the assembly facility at the Thumba Equatorial Launch Station in 1963 atop a bicycle’s carrier, to a live video of a PSLV launcher majestically lifting off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre at SHAR with 104 satellites on board, this year. And, this came close on the heels of its spectacular success in injecting the Mars orbiter into the Red Planet’s orbit, in its very first attempt, two years ago.

Now that ISRO’s socio-economic agenda is largely achieved, where does it go from here? Where will it be in 2047, when India turns 100? Good question. I am not sure if I should be offering an opinion given the fact that I am neither privy to its plans nor has ISRO articulated its vision, going forward. Even so, I do have an opinion because I think I am somewhat qualified to have one!

Connecting the dots, ISRO is working towards a manned space programme. A successful flight test of a Reusable Launch Vehicle was carried out last year. From information available in the public domain, India’s first astronaut should be getting atop an indigenous launcher by 2022 or thereabouts, if project funding is cleared soon.

By 2025 or so, ISRO will have truly come of age and occupy a position on the ‘high table’ along with other developed space faring nations. This would be a welcome occurrence as it would give India a definitive and credible ‘voice’ during policy formulations that would be needed to legislate and govern future human activity in space.

Humanity is at a crossroads today as it prepares to leave near earth orbit. This time, not to explore but to exploit what outer space has to offer. The question facing us all is: do we go there and carve out borders, like prospectors and gold diggers did in the mid 18th century in America or recently, in Antarctica; or, should we go there this time, to work collaboratively, for the greater good of humankind? If we choose the former path, we will have only succeeded in exporting human conflict to space, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence we have been trapped in for centuries.

By earning a place on the space faring nations’ ‘high table’, we get an opportunity to shape international space policy and introduce the concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ — the essence of inclusive Indian thought shaped by the Maha Upanishad — to the policy makers who shall be regulating future human activity in outer space.

This is my vision for India and the world in 2047. Let us wish ISRO continuing success in its endeavours till then. Jai Hind!  

The author is  retired wing commander of Indian Air Force and was the first Indian to travel in space

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Rakesh Sharma

The author is retired wing commander of Indian Air Force and was the first Indian to travel in space

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