It’s Time For ISRO to Reach For the (Blue) Sky

An artist's illustration of the Mars Orbiter orbiting the red planet. Credit: Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons

An artist’s illustration of the Mars Orbiter orbiting the red planet. Credit: Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons

Almost 40 years after the launch of Aryabhata, the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully placed another satellite into orbit, this time around Mars – becoming the world’s first space agency to have done so in its debut attempt. There are many similarities between the April-1975 launch of Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, and the September-2014 orbit-insertion of the Mars Orbiter Mission. But if the Mars mission suggests India has come a long way, ISRO’s commitment to blue-sky research – putting financial and scientific resources into projects that do not have immediate or even obvious applications – is still not apparent.

Aryabhata was launched at a time when the socio-political climate in India was fraught with uncertainty, and technology was barely a blip on the horizon as the promised secret solution. There had been widespread skepticism about what a scientific satellite – which at the time cost Rs.5 crore to build – could do for a “cow-dung economy”. A skepticism of the same flavour most recently surrounded the Mars Orbiter Mission, with many asking how it could help alleviate poverty in the country.

Symbolic victories

Even though astronomers had planned to use Aryabhata conduct experiments in astrophysics, the satellite suffered an electrical failure after four days in orbit. Nonetheless, it was hailed a success because it was one symbolically. The man responsible for its launch, Vikram Sarabhai, had inspired a nation that anything was possible should one apply herself or himself to it. Since 1962, with the establishment of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Kerala, Sarabhai had rapidly inculcated a generation of scientists fluent in the engineering and physics of building and launching rockets with that belief. By 1975, India had been brought to the doorstep of full-fledged space research.

Sadly, Sarabhai passed away in 1970, although by then he was able to found ISRO (superseding the Indian National Committee for Space Research set up in 1962) in 1969. But despite being born of the seemingly entrepreneurial seed that was Sarabhai’s vision, ISRO seldom engaged in blue-sky, curiosity-driven research – where practical applications are not apparent while the potential for discovering new applications of science is great. This reticence is all the more glaring given the fact that ISRO is one of the few institutions in the country that remains fairly removed from bureaucratic interference despite being substantially funded by the central government.

Despite its open-ended mandate, ISRO has only pursued goals that have well-defined implications, such as expanding the scope of our meteorology, communication and navigation technologies. Agreed, it would have been hard not to focus on such applications-driven nearer-term goals — nearer at least than the prolonged periods of hopefulness often required for blue-sky research — while the government was absorbed in capacity-building in the 1970s.

However, what’s the point of continuing to do predominantly that until the 2010s? For the government, the agency has become the leading provider of solutions to problems in weather-forecasting and communication. Even as Sarabhai had aspired to free India from the clutches of economic frugality through its space program, ISRO had inculcated a space program bereft of scientific curiosity – a frugality of the imagination.

Questioning Sarabhai

It is also worth asking to what end Sarabhai had himself looked to space. The answer is hard to divine, but important to know for what it can tell us about the history of scientists’ ambitions in India. While he believed that space research and, in time, exploration, could make India prosper, did he really support blue-sky research? Or was that simply us extrapolating his ambitions? Did Sarabhai only ever think of space research in terms of pressing it into the nation’s questions of poverty and economic development, or did he one day want to land an astronaut on Mars? There is a telling paragraph in the book A Brief History of Rocketry in ISRO by P Radhakrishnan and PV Manoranjan Rao:

Independent India was lucky to have Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister, for he shared a common ideal with [Homi] Bhabha and Sarabhai. He believed that modern science and technology were indispensable to the development of the country. He declared: ‘Science alone can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, in sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people’.

This bears many similarities to the relationship ISRO enjoyed with subsequent heads of state. Most recently, Narendra Modi took great pride in the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission in September and the successful launch of the GSLV Mk-III launch vehicle in December, both 2014. He also called for ISRO to launch a SAARC satellite, a communication satellite to service South Asia’s nations, which the agency said in March would be ready in 18 months.

However, from 1975 until now in 2015, neither the government nor the agency has professed much interest in defining and pursuing long-term science programs. In that period, ISRO has launched around 60 non-scientific (indigenous) satellites and fewer than 10 scientific satellites. But over 40 years, the problem has evolved to one of systematicity. The problem is not that we haven’t had more scientific satellites but that we are missing a coherent agenda for scientific research. If such an agenda exists, and one hopes it does, it has remained hidden thanks to ISRO’s baffling lack of public outreach.

The 1975 agenda

If the people doubted the applications of Aryabhata and the Mars Orbiter at the times of their launches, they were also quickly won over by their eventual symbolic victories. No doubt these missions were among the most significant of their times, but going ahead, ISRO will have to translate the symbolism to achievements that are better grounded in research agendas and more meaningful to the country’s scientific research community, instead of scattering them across the landscape of our enterprise. A crucial part of this involves public outreach – putting out constant and frequent updates like it did leading up to, and for a bit after, the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Aryabhata’s designation as a satellite for astrophysics research was quickly forgotten as its four-day stint in space was used to herald a new era of resource-surveying and communications satellites. Similarly, the launch of the GSLV Mk-III was not accompanied by any discussions by ISRO on how it was going to leverage the increased payload capacities the advanced launch rocket brought. Finally, while the Mars Orbiter Mission can be seen as a demonstration of ISRO’s capabilities in executing interplanetary missions, the agency has failed to detail how precisely it will be useful for future missions or, in fact, what those missions might be.