Indranil Banerjee | To the moon and beyond: India at cusp of a new age

“India is on the moon!” declared Sreedhara Panicker Somnath, the unassuming chief of India’s space agency Isro at 6.03 pm on Wednesday, August 23, when the Vikram lunar lander made a soft touchdown on the moon’s surface. The scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation monitoring the touchdown roared in joy while Indians across the country and overseas rose to applaud the event, their unbound elation a reflection of the momentousness of the event.

India had become the fourth country in the world to touch down on the moon, and the first to land near its southern pole. Millions watched the progress of the lunar landing craft, Vikram, as it detached from the orbiter Chandrayaan-3 which had carried it from earth across 384,400 km of empty space following its launch from Sriharikota more than a month ago on July 14, 2023. From 5.43 pm Indian time till the touchdown twenty minutes later, India held its breath. The previous attempt to soft land on the moon about four years ago had proved a disaster. This time around, though, the landing was perfect. The lander Vikram almost immediately began collecting and transmitting data while the robotic rover Pragyan inside it rolled out later to investigate the soil and minerals on the moon.

The lander Vikram houses three kinds of sensors while Pragyan has two. They will operate for one lunar day, which is equivalent to 14 earth days. Both are primarily powered by solar arrays and once night descends on the moon both will quietly shut down having completed the mission they were designed for. Up above the moon, two Indian spacecraft, Chandrayaan-3 and Chandrayaan-2, will continue orbiting and sending photographs of the lunar surface. The three main objectives of the lunar mission -- soft landing of the lander, demonstrating the rover’s driving capabilities and conducting experiments on the lunar surface to better understand the composition of the moon -- have all been met.

This is the culmination of an amazingly successful programme carried out on a shoestring budget. “These are very cost-effective missions… No one in the world can do it like we do,” Isro chief Sreedhara Panicker Somnath said. The New York Times reported that the “mission’s budget of about $75 million was less than the $100 million budget of the Hollywood space film Gravity”. Not surprisingly, the Indian government has given the green signal to a slew of space exploratory missions to follow, the first of which will be the Aditya-L1, which is schedule to lift off next month and get into an orbit suitable for studying the sun. There will be more probes sent out to Mars and a mission to ultimately land an Indian on the moon.

The successful moon landing marks a milestone in India’s long association with its celestial partner. As far back as 3,500 years ago, long before civilisation had emerged in most other parts of the world, ancient Indians were already studying the moon. Precisely arranged megaliths (huge rock columns weighing a few tonnes) have been found in places such as Brahmagiri in Karnataka, Pokaria in Jharkhand, Arossim in Goa and elsewhere. Scientists believe these pre-historic arrangements of

megaliths constitute observatories to record the movement of the moon and the sun.

“What is even more amazing is the scientific accuracy with which these

arrangements of rocks are able to predict the lunar cycle”, writes biochemist Pranay Lal, the author of the book Indica. He points out that these rock arrangements could even pinpoint occurrences such as the “lunar standstill”, which occurs once every 18 and a half years when the moon dips below the horizon and remains put for a couple of weeks.

The scientific demeanour of ancient Indians, their learning and discoveries gradually dimmed over the centuries, while other cultures took up that knowledge and further developed it. India sank into superstition, turning its back on scientific progress. Now, as the country seeks to get on to the world stage where science and technology dominate, it desperately needs to shed its baggage of outmoded mindsets and adopt new role models.

One of the most significant effects of Isro’s lunar success this week will be its impact on the country’s younger generation and a renewed focus on scientific learning and achievement. This, hopefully, will inevitably dent obscurantist tendencies in the country and restore scientific learning to its erstwhile glory.

At the same time, the government’s moves to open up the space sector to private players, engage with global space programmes such as Artemis and the promotion of technology to solve everyday problems are certain to crank up the scientific temper in the country. This will perhaps prove to be the biggest dividend of the successful moon landing Wednesday. Suddenly, every bright kid in the country wants to be a rocket scientist!

Unlike in the West, in India science and reason have never been considered antithetical to religion. In fact, Swami Vivekananda once said that “science and spirituality are two sides of the same coin”. He, like the ancients of this country, did not believe that superstition and dogma could be the foundation of religion: “Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation, which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of religion? In my opinion, this must be so, and I am also of the opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better.”

This is the scientific spirit that imbued Indian culture in the distant past. In his 1896 lecture in London, Swami Vivekananda only reaffirmed what was accepted by the rishis of old: “Believing certain things because an organised body of priests tells him to believe, believing because it is written in certain books, believing because his people like him to believe, the modern man knows to be impossible for him.”

It is this scientific spirit that was extinguished in India over the centuries which is poised to be revived. The successful moon landing, the pride and elation it evoked in millions of Indians, the fact that it was one of the most watched events in history, suggests that India has arrived at a cusp. India has touched the moon and inspired millions who are destined now to shape the future of the country. Bravo Isro!

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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