September 22, 2008

Indians Now Set to Unravel Myriad Mysteries of Moon

By Mahendra Ved

WHEN the first man landed on the moon, he found an enterprising Indian welcoming him to dine at his eatery. So goes a popular joke.

Come end-October, the joke could begin to get real. Forever moonstruck in religious and social beliefs, their poetic imagination stirred by mythology, not to speak of Bollywood's romantic fare, the Indians are heading for the moon.

Chandrayaan-I, India's maiden unmanned mooncraft, the size of a table, is all ready to take off in a rocket 50 metres tall, weighing 400 kilogrammes. Only inclement weather could prevent it, but till end-December.

It will carry 11 payloads, including six of foreign countries. They will bring back the best digital elevation map of the moon, mineral concentrations, conduct environmental studies, direct measurement of radioactivity and provide transport on the lunar surface.

The entirely indigenous spacecraft will seek to unravel myriad mysteries that the moon has posed to mankind and will study issues that will extend to space-bound travel beyond the moon.

With this most ambitious exploratory mission in decades, India will join the select band of nations, including Japan and China closer home, and in some areas, even lead them.

There are several exciting reasons other than getting to know the most friendly and most loved and worshipped object in space.

For once, tables have been turned this time. India is not going piggy-back into space; the Western partners are getting a free ride on a mission conceptualised by Indian scientists.

Indeed, it is a cooperative and a global scientific endeavour, with European and American instruments hitching a ride on a satellite and rocket designed and launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).

The European Space Agency, the United Kingdom and Bulgaria are on board. The US' Nasa showed interest in 2004, long before the current cacophony over the civil nuclear deal began.

The mission was announced on May 11, 1999, incidentally marking the first anniversary of the nuclear tests. Then Isro chief K. Kasturirangan said that his scientists were getting ready to "undertake a mission to the moon".

This was Isro's next big challenge. "If all goes well, it could be a reality by 2008." That is about to happen.

When it was first mooted, it seemed wildly optimistic to most people. Could a developing nation with limited resources afford to invest so much money, time and effort on research into outer space? Is that not an unnecessary luxury?

Yet, almost a decade hence, the scientific community has proved beyond doubt that it is capable of meeting the most exacting challenges and that it is worth putting the Indian rupee into it.

Isro has spent US$100 million (RM341 million) so far. When the manned mission begins, the estimated total cost may vary between Rs100 billion (RM7.4 billion) to Rs160 billion, which is manageable, considering India's defence budget alone has already crossed the trillion mark.

Isro has a record of efficiency and transparency. The failures are duly announced, recorded and corrected, perhaps more than any other programme in India.

At least on one occasion, reporters savouring coffee long after the excitement of a mission had cooled were summoned back to be told that the mission had actually failed.

This has helped it stay in the limelight, always on newspaper front pages and alive in the public imagination. An Indian grows up with so much space news that he can appreciate it without being technically qualified.

In an exciting curtain-raiser to the mission, the just-published Destination Moon: India's Quest for Moon, Mars and Beyond by Pallava Bagla and Subhadra Menon tells the story from concept to launch - the genesis, the plan, the people, the science.

Pallava-Subhadra is a fine north-south, husband-wife team dedicated to science and knowledge.

Their book, based on reportage, interviews and, most importantly, a deep understanding of the processes involved, is affordably priced at Rs195. It is "about dreams - dreams to be achieved in our lifetime", says Pallava.

Five decades back, Isro's founder Vikram Sarabhai exhorted scientists to ignore the never-ending debate on the merits of putting a man into space.

One of his distinguished disciples, former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, has a different take: "As civilisation spreads throughout the solar system, the moon will provide the main link between the Earth and its scattered children... Moon, given all its characteristics, would become a telecommunications hub for inter- planetary communications."

My generation that grew up on a diet of Sputnik and Apollo is excited. Somewhere along the way, in 1984, Rakesh Sharma went into space in a Soviet spacecraft.

But ethnic Indians elsewhere too have done it. Kalpana Chawla was part of the abortive American space mission, while Sunita Williams is the woman who has stayed the longest in space.

Why the moon? Because it is cool and beautiful. We all grew up fascinated by it; so will our children.

The moon is worshipped in many parts of the world. Soma, the moon god provides the nectar of life to the gods, and the moon is where the elixir is stored.

Moon has been a part of the Indian psyche for long, from Gautama Buddha, who propounded, "Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth," to Swami Vivekananda, who said, "This is not the moon at all, but the habitation of Gods."

It is hard to imagine life without a calendar - solar, lunar or luni-solar. The lunar calendar, based on lunar movements, governs Islamic societies.

The Indian calendar is structured on both the sun and the moon: the year is solar but divided into 12 lunar months. Most Hindu religious rituals are guided by the lunar movements; even the birth dates are according to the nakshatras or the 27 lunar mansions.

As Chandrayaan-1 readies for launch, Chandrayaan-2 awaits activation. India's future plans include a soft-lander and rover activation on the moon by 2012, a manned landing on the moon possibly by 2025, and the use of the moon as a staging point for missions to Mars and beyond. This quest has no limits.

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