Moon mission takes India's space program in new direction

Chandrayaan, launched Wednesday, will map the moon's surface. But most Indian space projects look for applications on Earth, such as telemedicine or distance learning for its far-flung population.

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-11 blasts off carrying India's first unmanned moon mission Chandrayaan-1 from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, about 100 km (62 miles) north of the southern Indian city of Chennai Wednesday.

When India's first unmanned mission to the Moon left its launchpad shortly after dawn Wednesday, much of the world heralded the success as the crowning achievement of India's space agency.

Thousands of Indians, however, might disagree.

They are residents of India's remote archipelagoes who have had access to first-class medical treatment through satellite uplinks, or eager engineering students who have asked questions of some of the most respected professors in the country from hundreds of miles away.

India's 39-year-old space program is perhaps unique. In a country of great need, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has long prioritized the practical uses of space science over the prestige it so often brings.

The Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe marks an evolution of this tradition, signaling the new scope of the country's ambitions while at the same time rooted in the ISRO's modest beginnings – built solely with Indian know-how and for one-sixth the cost of a similar NASA mission.

"It is now a mature-enough space program to start doing these sorts of things," says Jeff Foust of The Space Review, an online magazine.

Chandrayaan is India's entry into an emerging Asian space race. China and Japan have also recently sent spacecraft to the moon, as well. South Korea is building its own space program. Following in China's footsteps, India is expected to begin a manned space program, too, though the decision has yet to be made.

Chandrayaan is scheduled to reach the Moon after five days and spend two years in orbit, mapping the surface and looking for water ice deposits among other tasks. Two of the 11 instruments were designed by NASA, four are European, and five are Indian – including a small "impactor" probe that will be shot into the moon's surface to analyze its composition.

To be sure, India is feeling pressure from its Asian rivals, as well as a renewed focus on the moon in the US and Russia. But the origins of its space program differ markedly.

Elsewhere "space programs came as spinoffs of military programs, so the things the space program was expected to deliver were things that could be used in defense," says S.K. Das, a former ISRO official. "In the Indian space program – because it was so late to develop, it had to be justified in terms of social outcomes."

The result was a program "designed to help its own people, rather than as a token of national pride," says Mr. Foust.

Before Chandrayaan, ISRO had sent satellites into space only to look back down on Earth. Given India's size and chronic poverty, ISRO took on the task of using space to serve the people. By 1976, it had launched a satellite to bring television to the remotest parts of the country.

Since then, it has steadily added to its array of practical applications. Remote sensing satellites look for geological traces of underground aquifers in India's 120 drought-prone districts. Communications satellites reach classrooms far from highways or broadband Internet. In the state of Karnataka, for instance, all the engineering colleges are connected to a satellite network. For several hours a day, teachers come to a studio in Bangalore, the state capital, "so students in the rural areas can directly listen and ask questions," says Mr. Das.

Across town, doctor Bevi Shetty of Narayan Hrudayalaya hospital meets with 10 patients by satellite linkup. They come from any one of the 100 centers scattered across India connected to India's telemedicine program.

"In a country of 1.2 billion people, more than 60 percent live in a remote part of the country" without access to specialists, says Mr. Shetty.

There are five other "super-speciality" hospitals like Hrudayalaya directing care for patients remotely. Cardiologist Shetty estimates the program at his hospital alone has saved 3,000 lives through prompt, correct treatment.

Such programs exist worldwide. What has long set ISRO apart, however, is its exclusive focus on them. This mission was part ideological, part technological, says Gopal Raj, author of "Reaching for the Stars," a history of the Indian space program.

Having built its space program from scratch and at low cost, India has only recently mastered the rocket technology needed to send a probe to the moon. ISRO's budget is less than one-tenth that of NASA's. But the advance opened new opportunities, he says.

"Now that we had this capability, the question was how should we use it?" Mr. Raj says. "There is the sense in ISRO that space exploration is going to become very important in the coming decades, and you need to get your foot in and learn how to do these things."

From doctor Shetty's perspective, that can only be a good thing: "It will only enhance [ISRO's] confidence to do more."

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