India Says Namaste to Mars
On Wednesday morning, India became only the fourth power to make a successful attempt at a Mars mission. The country thrilled to the news that Mangalyaan, its indigenously developed Mars orbiter, had sent the signal -- one that took 12 nerve-racking minutes to traverse the 134 million miles back to Earth -- that it had successfully entered the orbit of the Red Planet.
Shortly afterward, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will leave for the U.S. later this week to meet with President Barack Obama and to canvass for India at a number of public functions, appeared at the Bangalore office of the Indian Space Research Organization to congratulate its staff and to reflect on the implications of their achievement for the entire nation.
Rhetorical energy and dexterity is an important challenge of statesmanship, and it's one that Modi relishes. Switching between Hindi (his preferred language) and English in a charming 23-minute speech, Modi hailed India's space scientists for managing a successful Mars mission on a budget "less than that of a Hollywood film," and he suggested that the victory would spur the renewal of India's energies in many other spheres, including governance.
The prime minister's only schmaltzy note came when he said that as soon as he heard that the acronym for the mission was MOM, he was convinced it would be successful, because "Moms never let anyone down." Yes, and now that one thinks of it, "Mars" sounds just like "Ma," too.
Mangalyaan's ripple effects might extend not just to the domestic, but also the diplomatic. A week before the convergence of two vast nation-states in what might open a new era of dialogue, the spacecraft entered the orbit of Mars on the heels of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's own Mars orbiter mission. Soon after the news broke, NASA's Curiosity Rover team tweeted, "Namaste, @MarsOrbiter! Congratulations to @ISRO and India's first interplanetary mission upon achieving Mars orbit."
"Howdy @MarsCuriosity?" came the nonchalant reply. "Keep in touch. I'll be around." It's good to see all's well with Indo-U.S. relations, at least in outer space.
Modi's emphasis on the technological and inspirational aspects of the Mangalyaan mission was especially welcome because, when the orbiter was launched in November last year, some of the euphoria in India was dampened by a few negative opinions. Critics argued that it was a mistake to spend precious resources on "the space race" when India had so many pressing challenges domestically, such as eliminating extreme poverty.
I thought at the time that this was a spectacularly joyless way of looking at the mission, not to mention one that conflated scientific advancement -- spreading the allure of science would do inestimable good in a culture as focused on astrology, rather than astronomy, as India's -- with utilitarian considerations, and indeed the failures of India's poverty-reduction efforts. Pleasingly, as Pavan Srinath noted in the Business Standard, the Mars mission itself has shifted the debate over the past year. Srinath even argued that it was a mistake for the defenders of the program to focus on its low cost, saying:
It is unfortunate that we make a virtue of low-cost successes in India rather than aiming for the best. An underestimation of expenses is inevitable in such a culture. This is unnecessary to sell the Mars mission to the Indian public. Apart from providing technological support to India's development and security needs, the space programme is a source of inspiration for scientific curiosity like no other. This is necessary for any growing nation to embrace a knowledge economy. While we may have plenty of challenges to address down on Earth, we have to keep looking up at the stars in order to pull ourselves up.
Although I have no scientific ability whatsoever, I spent the happiest part of my teens in outer space with the greats of science fiction, such as Robert Heinlein in "Space Family Stone" and Arthur Clarke in "Sands of Mars: An Interplanetary Adventure." Young Indians today don't need to look so far across the world to find a vehicle, narrative or mechanical, to voyage so far out of it. The recent moon and Mars missions have seeded the sands of India with dreams of space.
As for me, I now have too much business on this earth to consider emigrating, but it's very pleasing to know that as of now, the odds are much improved on the possibility of a future "Space Family Choudhury."
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