The success of Chandrayaan-3 has fired the imagination of the nation.
Millions of people watched the perfect touchdown of the lander, Vikram, on the lunar surface on Wednesday evening. Schools, colleges, and offices organised a special screening of the live broadcast of the final few minutes of the journey of Chandrayaan-3 to the Moon. There were festivities and celebrations all around to mark this new milestone in India’s space journey.
For the generations that grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the first human landing on the Moon is an event firmly etched in their memories. The 1980s generation remembers the journey of Rakesh Sharma – the first Indian to travel to space (not the Moon). The soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 is a similar moment for the millennials and Generation Z.
Outer space, stars, planets, galaxies, space travel, and aliens have all been a part of public imagination for decades, thanks to their depiction in science fiction books, comics, movies, and television serials. So, it is natural for people to get excited when something like a ‘moon landing’ happens from nearer home.
In recent years, we have had a fair share of space-related stories in popular culture in India, such as Mission Mangal, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect and two seasons of the web series Rocket Boys. Social media posts and memes from such pop depictions of the Indian space programme are doing the rounds after the Chandrayaan-3 mission.
Very often vintage images of two young scientists carrying a rocket nozzle on a bicycle and what looks like a satellite being transported on a bullock cart are shared to romanticize India’s space journey.
In the real world, the Chandrayaan-3 mission is a testimony to the maturing of the space programme since the 1960s and a culmination of the work of thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians, and industries spread all over the country, and not a miracle. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is a part of the vast science, technology and innovation (STI) infrastructure meticulously planned and built since India's independence.
Why a Lunar Mission?
It was almost 60 years back, on 21 November 1963, that India entered the space age when Indian scientists fired a sounding rocket from Thumba, a fishing village near Trivandrum.
This happened amidst the space race between America and the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War. President Kennedy’s challenge to American scientists to put a man on the Moon before ‘the decade is out’ was all about supremacy and national pride. on 16 July 1969.
The Soviets lost the first round in this space race. They sent several uncrewed, robotic missions that not only landed on the lunar surface but also brought rocks back to the Earth. So, when ISRO started planning a lunar mission around 1999, the need for such missions was questioned.
The lunar missions of the first space age proved certain technologies and provided a broad idea about the lunar atmosphere. There were still a lot of unknowns about the Moon, its atmosphere, rocks and minerals. The discovery of water-bearing molecules in the lunar atmosphere by proved the utility of orbiters and lander missions.
This also explains the choice of the unexplored south pole region for the Chandrayaan-3 landing. So, what crewed missions of the 1960s could not find, landers, rovers, and lunar vehicles can. This is what the new race to the Moon is all about.
An Indian on the Moon next?
The Chandrayaan series of missions was designed for lunar exploration from an orbit around the moon as well as lunar ground exploration with the rover. Vikram and Pragyaan will continue to be on the lunar surface after their designed life of 14 Earth days is over. There is no provision for bringing them back to Earth.
The next logical step in this direction would be a ‘sample return’ mission wherein a lander lands on the Moon, releases a rover or a robot, collects rock samples, and climbs back into the lander, which then propels it back to Earth. This is how Apollo worked – it took astronauts and brought them back to Earth safely.
Many uncrewed missions have done this since then. India has to master the technology of soft-landing as well as sample return missions before it can think of a manned mission to the Moon. After soft-landing on the Moon in 2013, China has done a sample return mission too, and is planning a manned lunar mission by 2030.
Yes, India has a human space flight programme to send a crewed mission to outer space (not to the Moon). It was that an Indian would travel to space in 2022, but the deadline has been missed for several reasons.
ISRO first thought of a manned space flight in 2004, followed up with detailed studies, and identification of new technologies needed for human flight, and has been testing technological building blocks. A set of future astronauts has been trained in Russia. This programme is running in parallel to the Chandrayaan mission and has a separate set of milestones to be achieved.
India the Next Space Power?
India entered the space age in the 1960s with a clear goal of using science and technology for national development and the benefit of the Indian people, as envisaged by Vikram Sarabhai. The very first space mission of ISRO was to connect rural areas via satellite for beaming educational content.
Since then, the space agency has developed the end-to-end technological capability to design, fabricate, launch, and use satellites of different types – communication, weather, broadcasting, remote sensing, earth observation, navigation, surveillance, education, scientific applications like astronomy and so on.
Only after this, ISRO thought of inter-planetary missions and human flight. It has launched four deep space missions so far - three to the Moon and one to Mars. More are in the offing. This way, ISRO has made step-by-step forays into the space sector and has established itself as a robust, cost-effective, and reliable space agency.
Gaining supremacy in space or rivalry with China was never a stated policy objective of India and ISRO. Yet, the success of Chandrayaan-3 places India in an exclusive club – along with America, Russia, and China.
This is important as the contours of the space sector are changing fast – though the USSR was a pioneer in robotic lunar missions, its successor state Russia failed to soft land on the Moon last week; China is aggressively pursuing its space ambitions; new players like UAE have joined the lunar race; and private companies are working on competing missions. With Chandrayaan-3's success, India has become a key player in the new lunar race.
(Dinesh C Sharma is the former Managing Editor of India Science Wire (ISW), New Delhi, India. He can be reached at dineshcsharma.wordpress.com and @dineshcsharma on Twitter. His latest book is The Outsourcer: The Story of India's IT Revolution, MIT Press. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)