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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 40, September 27, 2014

Real News: Mangalyaan’s Historic Feat

Sunday 28 September 2014, by SC



The situation in Maharashtra prior to the impending State Assembly elections has taken a new turn with the break-up of both the alliances—that of the ruling Congress-NCP combine and the one of the Opposition BJP and Shiv Sena. However, the final picture is still unclear: even if the Congress on the one side and the Shiv Sena on the other have decided to go it alone, it is yet to be seen if the NCP would eventually have overt or covert electoral understanding with the BJP.

But the real news at this juncture is not political: it lies in the country’s low-cost Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft, Mangalyaan’s successful entry into the orbit around the Red Planet in its very first attempt—a unique feat by scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who created space history yesterday morning around 7.47 am.

It was indeed a triumph of Indian science but it was also a triumph of frugal Indian engineering. The project, which began with the launch of Mangalyaan on November 5, 2013, was the cheapest costing $ 74 million (Nasa’s MAVEN spacecraft, which reached the Mars orbit on September 21, 2014 after being launched on November 18, 2013, cost $ 671 million, whereas the European Space Agency’s spacecraft on a similar mission cost $ 386 million and the Russian Federal Space Agency’s satellite for the same purpose $ 117 million). It needs to be also mentioned that while India is the first Asian country and fourth space power (after the US, Europe and Russia) to send a craft to Mars, Japan and China’s attempts to do the same had failed (the US and Russia also succeeded after several attempts unlike in India’s case).

While congratulating the scientists, PM Narendra Modi spoke for the entire Indian people when he projected the “self-reliance in a hostile environment” Mangalyaan had demonstrated. Of course, he paid tributes to only former PM A.B. Vijpayee for the success of the mission without referring to our first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, but for whose vision ISRO would not have come into existence—a point underscored by Modi’s predecessor in government, Dr Manmohan Singh.

Mangalyaan will circle around Mars for six months for collecting data including on the presence of Methane gas, a marker of life on the Red Planet.

Mangalyaan has no military objective. Yet it is worthwhile to recall what the founder of this journal had written more than 25 years ago in Mainstream (May 27, 1989) after India’s successful firing of the inter-mediate range missile, Agni, on May 22 of that year:

While there is nationwide, spontaneous jubilation at the achievement by our scientists and engineers, one has to guard against any jingoist outburst about our country’s military superiority over our neighbours—a tendency which our politicians with their narrow vision are prone to indulge in...

One has to guard against any euphoria of our military strength, as there are few in authority in our public life who understand the dividing line between patriotism and chauvinism—a point which Jawaharlal Nehru never wavered in emphasising as an axiom of his foreign policy.

This warning-note assumes more importance in today’s setting than ever before.

September 25 S.C.

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