Outer space lessons

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Outer space lessons

In furthering its outer space ambitions, India must study the experiences of other space powers.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/outer-space-lessons/article26925293.ece


• As scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) work toward ‘Mission Gaganyaan’, to send three Indian astronauts into space, one can’t but make comparisons with the U.S.’s lunar mission in the 1960s.

US space episode

• At the time, U.S. President John F. Kennedy made a public statement about his administration’s determination to place an American on the moon by the end of that decade.

• The goal – fueled by competition with the Soviet Union dubbed the “space race” -took what was to become Kennedy Space Center from a testing ground for new rockets to a center successful at launching humans to the moon.

• His speech was against the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s progress as the foremost power in space, and after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s feat of becoming the first human being in space (April 1961).

• Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” on the lunar surface in 1969 achieved a goal that sounded like science fiction just a few years earlier.

India’ s Gaganyaan programme

• In 1984, Indian astronaut Rakesh Sharma had the opportunity to go to space but that has been it for India. Now, the time has changed and new dawn is upon the country to take its very own ‘giant leap’.

• The Gaganyaan programme, an indigenous mission that would take Indian astronauts to space, was announced by the prime minister during his 2018 Independence day speech.

• Rs. 10,000-crore mission will be a turning point in India’s space journey. ISRO has developed some critical technologies like re-entry mission capability, crew escape system, crew module configuration, thermal protection system, deceleration and flotation system, sub-systems of life support system required for Mission Gaganyaan.

• ISRO will receive assistance from the French space agency CNES, in terms of expertise various fields including space medicine, astronaut health monitoring, radiation protection and life support.

• Gaganyaan is an Indian crewed orbital spacecraft that is intended to send 3 astronauts to space for a minimum of seven days by 2022, as part of the Indian Human Spaceflight Programme.

• The spacecraft, which is being developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), consists of a service module and a crew module, collectively known as the Orbital Module.

• It will be for the first time that India will launch its manned mission to space, making the country fourth in line to have sent a human to space.

• ISRO’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle GSLV Mk III, the three-stage heavy-lift launch vehicle, will be used to launch Gaganyaan as it has the necessary payload capability.

Learning from US experience

• The U.S.’s objective, therefore, was to have a definite public-relations edge over the U.S.S.R. in the space race, which was marked then by intense rivalry between two Cold War powers. A breakthrough in space was thus a matter of prestige.

• In the context of ISRO’s plan, the prestige value of ‘Mission Gaganyaan’ is sky-high, possibly in the same league as the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Apollo Mission to the moon.

• A key lesson for India from NASA’s lunar mission is that a programme of that scale and magnitude often comes at a steep cost, monetary and non-monetary.

o More than the monetary loss, it is the non-monetary loss that matters more, as it can lend currency to the idea that such a failure indicates a waste of time and resources.

o A failed mission deeply hurts the image of the country in the eyes of the outside world. It raises doubts about the capability of the nation-state in question.

o No nation-state ever wants to such face such a dilemma. This is because such a development would play to the advantage of adversaries, politically and diplomatically.

• Politically, a failed mission of such magnitude could give voices in the opposition an opportunity to level criticism, perhaps weakening the incumbent domestically.

o The diplomatic costs arise from the fact that losses in space missions can seriously impact the future of cooperation between space powers.

o For instance, during the Cold War, both the U.S. and the then U.S.S.R. exaggerated each other’s failures in space missions considerably in order to influence the overall mood among and inclinations of other nations in their favour.

o This was most easily achieved by making the rival look as weak as possible. Historically, the media played an active role in participating in such an agenda-driven propaganda.

Way forward

• Outer space is often referred to as the ‘final frontier’ by major world powers, with the prize for conquering it being even more greatness on the world stage.

• While India’s credentials were bolstered after the successful anti-satellite mission recently, significant success in ‘Mission Gaganyaan’ might provide India with that stamp of authority in outer space that it so keenly desires. For that to happen, the lessons from the experiences of other space powers must be heeded.

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