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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 35-36 August 26 & September 2, 2023

Revisiting Nehru’s Larger Vision on Space Exploration Assumes Greater Significance When India Leads the World in Placing Chandryan III on the South Pole of the Moon | S N Sahu

Friday 25 August 2023


On 23rd August 2023 India became the first country in the world after the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) ensured the soft landing of Chandrayan-3, on the south pole of the moon. No other country ever did so. Earlier the USA, Russia, and China had achieved the distinction of carrying out soft landing only on the north pole of the moon. So the soft landing of Chandrayan-3 makes India the fourth country to get the enviable distinction of reaching the moon very successfully for a lunar mission.

Nehru’s Joy would Have known No Bounds at the Success of Chandran III

The extraordinary accomplishment of ISRO with an incredibly modest cost of Rs.615 crores owes a lot to its talented scientists. It is in this context it is instructive to revisit the vision of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru concerning space exploration. His joy would have known no bound to see his beloved India creating a new age for space exploration after it became the first country in the world to ensure the soft landing of its spacecraft, Chandrayan-III, in the south pole of the moon. He would have rejoiced in India opening new frontiers in humanity’s arduous and continuing adventure for the lunar mission to further reach out the infinite dimensions of space.

Nehru and the Sputnik Age

Nehru was sensitive to the first steps taken by the erstwhile Soviet Union in the history of humanity in launching artificial earth satellites, Sputnik I and Sputnik II, in October and November 1957 respectively, and Sputnik III in May 1958. He also referred to the US launching the artificial satellite, Explorer or Alpha, on 31st January 1958. He described those scientifically trend-setting developments as "Sputnik age" representing what he described in his illuminating note Basic Approach, authored by him in August 1958, as "...great and overpowering progress in science and technology and of their manifold consequences." At the same time, he very profoundly observed that humanity was gripped by "a certain mental exhaustion" because of a "lack of moral fibre and self-control" because of the conquest of the physical world and neglect of self-control.

Space Age Incompatible with Narrowness of Mind

Five months earlier on 26th March 1958 in a letter to Chief Ministers, he referred to the artificial satellites launched by both the erstwhile Soviet Union and USA and described those developments as a continuation of "The intrusion of man into outer space." However, he thoughtfully observed, "Very slowly it is dawning upon men and women that we are entering a new age, the age of interplanetary travel". "And yet", he very appropriately observed, "in our narrow world, we are entangled in all kinds of rivalries and national conflicts which have no meaning in this new age".

Nehru describing the launching of those artificial satellites as the advent of a "new age" would possibly have described the soft landing of Chandrayan III on the lunar south pole as a new epoch scripted by the Indian space scientists not only for our country but the whole world.

In fact, even before he established the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1959 he was sensitising the Indian scientific community to remain tuned to the new space age. While delivering the inaugural speech at the Aero-Club in New Delhi, on 4th December 1958 he asserted that even before the jet age got properly established the space age was heralded. He then forcefully stated that "If India is to advance - as of course - it is going to - we must get into tune with this scientific and technological age." In that respect, he exhorted for producing a large number of personnel well versed and trained in the arena of science and technology which he saw as defining and shaping the destiny of humanity. As stated earlier he took note of the immense possibilities of "the new age" and "interplanetary travel" and at the same time expressed deep anguish that "in our narrow world, we are entangled in all kinds of rivalries and national conflicts which have no meaning in this new age".

Those words articulated by him with the advent of a "New Age" need to be uppermost in the mind of India’s Prime Minister Modi who described the soft landing of Chandrayan only in terms of "the new flight of new India" and the time for our country "to walk on the ’Chandra Path’" (Path of the moon). Unlike Nehru who combined the joy of knowing the launching of the artificial satellites with the narrowness of vision at the terrestrial plane, Modi did not at all mention the pain, violence, and bloodshed inflicted on vast sections of people because of the rising spread of hate, bigotry, and majoritarianism which represent narrowness in a sinister manner.

Nehru’s Prescient Words

Reverting back to Nehru’s vision one is struck by his observations made on 2nd October 1959 when he inaugurated a library in Rajasthan University and said, "For the first time in world’s history, someone from earth sends something which reaches the moon." Those were indeed the prescient words. That "someone" in that statement of Nehru was none other than India as it emerged, in 2023, as the first country in the world to successfully send its space vehicle Chandrayan-III to the south pole of the moon and very ably ensuring its safe touch down on the lunar surface full of craters and rocky terrain with hardly any light. And three years after Nehru said so he set up in 1962, under the leadership of Vikram Sarabhai, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) which was the precursor to the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) established in 1969. The remarkable manner in which the ISRO scientists dedicated themselves to achieving its mission following the example of Vikram Sarabhai and the vision of Nehru has resulted in making India the first country in the world to place its Chandrayan-III in the moon’s south pole with ease and exemplary smoothness.

Arrival of Humanity on the Moon Means Rejection of Superstition

Nehru described space travel as a mighty revolution setting the stage for additional changes all the time. He also looked at the successful sending of a space vehicle to the moon not only as a scientific and technological marvel but as a refreshing approach to discard superstitions plaguing society and nation. He referred to some people talking about Grahans, eclipses, standing on one leg on the occasion of the occurrences of those eclipses and taking a bath in a river to save the moon. "It would be far better" Nehru said, "if they try to save themselves before they tended to save the moon". So, the arrival of humanity on the moon was interpreted by Nehru as an opportunity to emancipate humanity in general and India in particular from the shackles of superstition impeding progress and advancement in scientific and technological fields.

Success of Lunar Mission Should Raise Human Spirit

It is instructive to revisit Nehru’s message of congratulations to Nikita Khrushchev issued on 16th September 1959 when Lunik II rocket of the erstwhile Soviet Union reached the moon. Nehru described that as "a magnificent achievement for humanity and in particular for Soviet scientists." "May it be" he remarked, "be the prelude to even greater achievements in the establishment of peace and goodwill on earth." Nehru then proceeded to add that the prevalence of peace and good might result in the success of science and human genius to end the era of wars and human conflicts and in "bringing in a new age of human cooperation for the advance of humanity not only in the conquest of space and nature’s mysteries but also in raising the spirit of man to even higher levels".

Those words of Nehru are of enduring significance. Generations of ISRO scientists dedicated to its mission are engaged in the mighty task of taking India to greater heights of glory. Nehru’s vision assumes greater relevance when the rest of the world marvels at India becoming the first country to have come out with flying colours after so smoothly placing the Chandrayan-3 on the south pole of the moon. Can Prime Minister Modi and the regime he heads be persuaded to be guided by that larger vision and put an end to the violence in Manipur and elsewhere in India in the name of ethnicity, faith, or any other identity? That would be a fitting tribute to the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru whose vision remained central to the establishment of ISRO and take forward the adventurous and exciting journey in the quest for space research and application.

(Author: S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan)

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