What Chandrayaan-3 means for India

It is a landmark event, no doubt. But if you look beyond the event, it gives us a very important capability. It gives us physical access to another planetary body. The fact that we are only among a handful of countries with this capability means we are at the forefront of this technology. And therefore, we will be part of all decision-making related to future planetary explorations and even extraction of resources from space. We are naturally part of the club that formulates these policies.

And this is significant, because in the past we have suffered by being kept out of such clubs. We have been denied access to technology — in atomic energy, in space, and other critical areas. We were kept out because we did not have our own capabilities and were, in some ways, dependent. Of course, that has changed over the years and is rapidly changing as India transitions from a developing country to a developed one.

Space capabilities will occupy a central place in deciding the equations between countries in the 21st century, and the influence they have in international community. The important thing is that we should be able to participate and contribute on equal terms. And we should be able to play a more decisive role in space-related international decision-making processes. Chandrayaan-3 gives us that confidence and capability.

What does it do for ISRO?

Chandrayaan-3 demonstrates a full-fledged planetary exploration strategy. What this means is that ISRO has demonstrated its ability to take the satellite right to the vicinity of a planet, or the Moon, allow it to go around the Moon and make sure that we understand its environment and surface by photography or other means, and then lastly the ability to land on the Moon. So, for the first time, we have a direct physical access to the Moon, which has its own set of very important implications with respect to the future of exploration and exploitation of resources. It becomes a total story in terms of planetary exploration strategy.

The one remaining step, of course, is to get a mission to return to earth, and we are already working on that. Gaganyaan (the human spaceflight programme) would demonstrate that capability too.

I think Chandrayaan-3 has established India’s credentials as a serious player in planetary exploration. This century is going to be about solar system exploration.

ISRO’s visionary leader Vikram Sarabhai is often quoted as saying that he did not have the “fantasy” of competing in the exploration of the Moon or other planets, or in manned space flights, and would rather see ISRO working for the benefits of the common man. Is ISRO now diverging from Sarabhai’s vision?

Its good that you asked. Let me give a little bit of context. It is true that Sarabhai saw space technologies as a tool to fulfil India’s developmental requirements. He was of the view that in a developing country like India, space technology could ensure optimal utilisation and management of the limited resources. He used to forcefully argue that timely, accurate and precise information about our critical resources was essential. We had primitive communication systems at the time. We needed massive improvements in education and health systems. We needed good information in meteorology which could predict rains so that we could plan our agricultural activities. With his passionate advocacy, he managed to convince the government to invest in space technology.

And, thus India became the only country — probably Japan was another — to start a space programme with an entirely peaceful approach to uses of space technology, and focussed totally on developmental needs. The two principal space powers at that time, the US and the erstwhile USSR, were using space as an extension of the Cold War. Sarabhai unfortunately died in 1971 but all his successors at ISRO, Prof MGK Menon, Satish Dhawan and U R Rao, continued to work on his vision. ISRO built capabilities in remote sensing, communication, broadcasting, meteorology, earth observation, satellite technologies.

By the time U R Rao left office (in 1994), much of Sarabhai’s vision had already been realised. For successors like me (Kasturirangan succeeded U R Rao as ISRO chairman), the obvious question was what next. How do we take the legacy of Sarabhai forward, and utilise the capabilities built over the previous three decades? And then, we began discussing plans for planetary exploration, with moon being the obvious first choice.

So, the Moon missions were planned in the mid-1990s?

I think just at the start of the new century. You asked me whether ISRO was diverging from Sarabhai’s vision. I think if Sarabhai had been alive when we were taking those decisions, I am sure he would have encouraged us to take those same decisions. We were all inheritors of the type of thinking that Sarabhai had and the culture that he had imbibed in the organisation. I don’t think we thought very differently from him in terms of the next objectives for ISRO.

But those decisions were also enabled by the fact that ISRO had built up relevant capabilities in the previous years. It was Sarabhai who had insisted that ISRO must develop launch vehicle capabilities as well. Many countries send satellites these days, very few of them have launching capabilities. But even in those early days, Sarabhai did not want India to be dependent on others. He argued that since India’s space programme was meant for developmental purposes, we must ensure uninterrupted services from our space assets to be available to us. Being dependent on other for launch could have made us vulnerable to political or other pressures.

So, at the beginning of this century, we had a satellite capability, a PSLV rocket, good experience in remote sensing and communications and a healthy pool of scientific talent. Planetary exploration was the logical thing to start thinking about. Very soon, we had the consent, support and encouragement of the political leadership as well.

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So, is the evolution of ISRO now complete — from developmental needs to commercial launches, and now finally pursuing scientific and planetary explorations?

I think ISRO has done well to respond to the specific requirements of the times. Its objectives have always remained aligned with the emerging needs and interests of the country. And the good thing has been that it has received very good support from the governments. Every government has backed ISRO’s projects and expressed confidence in its abilities. When we had proposed the first moon mission to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it was Vajpayee who suggested that we should name it Chandrayaan-1 and not Chandrayaan because this should only be the first of the series. The present government has been particularly aggressive in pushing the space agenda.

As I said, space will play an increasingly strategic role. And others will take us seriously only if we have the capabilities. There is a reason why Indian partnership is being sought after in matters of space. Artemis Accords, the joint mission with NASA, joint missions with other countries like Japan are all happening because we have something meaningful to contribute. Space technologies are a very important component of our diplomatic outreach. It helps us win friends and support in the international community. Chandrayaan-3 will reinforce these processes. That is why it is much bigger than a single event, even though it is very remarkable on its own.

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