Inside India #49 – An Indian on Mars?

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

In the early hours of September 7th 2019, millions of Indians tuned in to watch, with baited breath, as the Vikram Moon lander attempted to descend to the surface of the moon. The lander, part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, represented the first attempt by India to land a module on the lunar surface, at its south pole, in a spot where no other landing had ever been attempted. Bear in mind that this is a region where an earlier mission – the Chandrayaan-1 – had detected the presence of water, in the form of ice. 

The odds of a successful landing were intimidating. A soft landing on another planetary body has only been achieved by three other nations – the US, Russia, and China. India was aiming to be the fourth.

Picture credit: Nesnad, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Image is an artist’s rendering of the ISRO Mars Orbiter.

This new mission represented more than just another visit to the moon – it was India’s way of signalling to the world its ambitions in both the global race to achieve low-cost space exploration, and its wider ambitions as a genuine superpower.

Alas, on this occasion, the mission was to prove unsuccessful, at least in its final stage.

Approximately two kilometres from the surface, mission control lost communication with the lander. It was later discovered to have crash landed. 

Nevertheless, ISRO – the Indian Space Research Organisation – declared the mission 98% successful – because it fulfilled the majority of the goals the agency had set itself, including lift-off, reaching the moon, lunar-orbit insertion, and lander-orbiter separation. The mission proved that India now had the technology and the capability to achieve interplanetary spaceflight.

The mission also represented the culmination of more than fifty years of slow but steady progress in achieving Indian ambitions in the space arena. 

The Indian space program officially began in 1962 with the establishment, by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, of the Indian National Committee for Space Research. Seven years later, the committee was superseded by ISRO, headquartered at Bangalore (now Bengaluru). 

In 1975, ISRO launched India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, and officially entered the space age. (Aryabhata was named after one of the earliest mathematician-astronomers from India’s classical age of scientific advancement. Among his many achievements, Aryabhata is believed to have advocated an astronomical model in which the Earth turns on its own axis. Today, a lunar crater is named in his honour.)

Almost four decades later, in 2014, India launched an unmanned mission to Mars – the Mars Orbiter Mission – named Mangalyaan. 

On September 24, 2014, the spacecraft entered Mars orbit, making India the first Asian nation to have achieved the feat. The mission was notable because it established India’s reputation for pioneering affordable satellite launches and space missions – the Mars mission cost just $74m, less than the budget of many Hollywood space blockbusters – for instance, the Sandra Bullock and George Clooney starrer Gravity.

India has set itself several new targets in the field of space exploration, including putting the first Indian astronauts into space using homegrown technology. Astronauts are already undergoing training for what has been named the Gaganyaan mission. (The COVID pandemic delayed the mission, but ISRO has set a revised target date of late 2024.)

As for Chandrayaan-2, India has put the failure behind her – a new mission, Chandrayaan-3, has already been sanctioned and will consist of a lander and a rover, but not an orbiter. There are high hopes that this time the mission will achieve its ultimate goal of placing a rover on the moon.

Why does any of this matter? 

You only have to look at the rhetoric coming from official channels, and the millions of eyeballs glued to the attempted Vikram landing, to understand that India’s space programme is an important aspect of how the nation sees itself on the world stage. Successful achievements in space allow India to place herself on a par with other global superpowers, signalling that the country has the scientific capability, the resources, and the will to succeed in any endeavour it turns its hand to. 

There is already talk of India aiming to land a human on Mars before any of the other major powers. 

Who is to say that she won’t achieve that? 

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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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