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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Key Question When at Home in Orbit

ISRO made the final orbital maneuver to slow Chandrayaan I into a 100 km circular orbit on Chandra. The most crucial maneuver was few days ago when the spacecraft went from an Earthly orbit to an orbit around the Moon. After that there were series of maneuvers to slow the spacecraft to current orbit - opposite of what they were when orbiting Earth.

Courtesy The Telegraph

The next significant milestone would be when a lunar probe is dropped onto Chandra's surface. As a technology demonstrator and a scientific venture the project is a great success.

But one continues to hear complains that we should first solve some earthly problems before we can "ape" others. As I briefly said before, those complains miss the larger lesson of this project's success. The point is not which tasks we should put on hold until we are economically successful i.e., everyone in the country has basic necessities such as power, water, and access to health care and infrastructure. After all, the entire Chandrayann I project cost little more than Rs. 300 crores. It would cost lakhs of crores to create the infrastructure that would provide the basic necessities to all communities in the country. If one were cynical, Rs. 300 crores is a fraction of, for example, what Laloo Yadav skimmed off during the so-called fodder scam few years ago.

The lesson is not to put on hold so called non-essential projects or expenditures until every person in the country is well feed and is a happy being. And it's not like the government hasn't spent enormous amounts trying to do just that for the past 60 years and failed at it miserably. The lesson to learn is: how is that a small organization within the same failed government establishment can challenge itself to do an extremely complex outer space project and get it done inexpensively and on time? It's not just ISRO. The integrated missile development program, also a rocket based technology, achieved its objectives spending lot less then most other defence projects. In fact, the program was so successful it was dismantled few years ago because the stated objectives that it set out to do, in the early 80s, were complete.

What makes these little funded government organizations succeed, while the vastly better funded government infrastructure projects have failed repeatedly over several decades? Also, if there were no Chandrayaan projects, would it make a difference to other, supposedly more essential, projects? One has to suspend reality to believe that. It can be argued that the government should not be involved in lot those failed infrastructure projects in the first place. But still, why do some projects, based on high tech, succeed, while others, more mundane ones, fail repeatedly?

That should be the key question to ask of Chandrayaan I success. Making some quasi-socialist necessity verses luxury trade off argument misses the point.