Thursday, February 29, 2024

Dream Mission

This is the untold story of how India triumphed in its mission to Mars. It is also about its dash to win the geo-political race and charting a new role in space exploration [/h2]

By Ramesh Menon

Let us admit it. India can produce scientific miracles. How else can you explain the ingenuity of Indian scientists, who, with a shoe-string budget of just $70 million (Rs. 4,500 million) produced Mangalyaan, the first deep space inter-planetary mission to Mars in 2013? Undoubtedly, the Mars Orbiter Mission was the cheapest inter-planetary mission in the world. India made it possible, incurring a cost of just $76 million, while the United States spent $671 million on Maven, the mission to Mars, a few days after the Indian mission. Maven took six-and-a-half years in the making. Mangalyaan took 15 months! Sadly, this was not noticed or celebrated in India.

The satellite that was the size of a Nano car hurtled into space lighting up millions of dreams and making the world recognize the supremacy of Indian space technology and craft. All the five payloads were indigenous. As the writers of Reaching for the Stars say: “Big science they say is fuelled by big dreams, but big dreams can become real only if they are dreamt early enough.”

Reaching for the Stars by Pallava Bagla and Subhadra Menon is veritably an insider’s narrative of what the mission entailed and how it was planned. More than 500 engineers and scientists at the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organization in Bengaluru, scientists at the Space Appli-cations Center and the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad and the rocket fabricators at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center at Thiruvananthapuram worked long hours all those months to fabricate a dream. As the authors reveal what went behind the scenes, you realize what passion can do to bring in excellence.

This could have been a boring, technical book but the writers, with their slick anecdotal and personalized style, have made it both an easy and memorable read. The de-tails are arresting and stay in the mind, mapping a picture that will stay for long. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was as tall as 15 storeys, weighing as much as 50 elephants. Imagine Mangalyaan hurtling down its path of 690 million kilometers.

As mission after mission brought back pictures, data and interpretations from Mars, it ignited more mystery and kept the search warm for signs of life. No wonder it is the hottest topic of space exploration today, as many imagine that one day Mars will be colonized. Astronomers have been obsessed with Mars for many years. There are details in the book on similarities with our earth and the dissimilarities that make it inhabitable. But there is still hope that life on Mars could be realized one day…

Various cultures worship Mars in some form or other. In India, a person is called a manglik if born when Mars is in a certain position and it is considered inauspicious to marry such a person as it is feared that there will be troubles in the marriage. Ridiculously, there were reports that actress Aishwarya was a manglik and that she would have to marry a peepal tree to ward off its evil effects.

In the fifties and sixties, parts of rockets that were to be assembled were carried by scientists on bicycles. And look at where we have reached today.

A debate continues on whether the Mars mission was required, as India still has to provide electricity to nearly 400 million people, tackle malnutrition and build toilets. But it is also a fact that satellite technology has helped India take a scientific leap. Among many things, it has helped save thousands before cyclones and made it possible for satellites to beam pictures into our living rooms. That is why it is important to read this book as it tells us about the passion of Indian scientists and their missionary zeal that was fired by the one thought—doing something exceptional to benefit future generations.


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