No part of India’s space programme has received the kind of attention the ambitious Mars Orbiter Mission attracted. The mission, projected by the Indian Space research Organisation (ISRO) as a demonstration of its capabilities in advanced space technology, pushed ISRO to behave in ways it never has before — actively and openly talk about its work.
Whatever little information comes out of the space agency about its activities is usually limited to rare and exclusive meetings with journalists. But this time around, ISRO pulled out all the stops and used social networking websites to communicate directly with the public about the Mars Mission. This, however, sparked criticism from some quarters on the very purpose behind of the Mars Mission.
The first and most publicised challenge came from former ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair, who had presided over the Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission. He criticised the Mars Mission as a “publicity stunt”, which kickstarted a raging debate, bringing out prominent voices for and against it.
Sources at ISRO told Express that their social media campaign to build public opinion for the Mars Mission was also an attempt to hedge against the influence Nair wields over the policy making apparatus in the country’s space programme. The publicity blitz, much like the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission, has been a resounding success so far.
The direct answer to criticism, both from Nair and international media organisations, came from ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan during a press conference following the successful launch of the mission on November 5. Responding to a question from a BBC correspondent over how the expenditure on the Mars Mission was justified even as India grapples with poverty, Radhakrishnan went back to the basics.
He borrowed phrases that had been used by none other than Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of the Indian space programme, in 1969. He recalled Sarabhai’s stress on the phrase “no ambiguity of purpose” and the necessity in a developing nation for the proper “application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society”. “The Indian space programme from Day One, that is for the last 50 years, has been people-centric and application-centric. We can proudly say in this country that we have passed on the benefits of the services to the people directly,” said Radhakrishnan.
“The first step that has come up over the last 30 years is the ability of managing natural resources in a better way, providing information for various development processes and supporting disaster management operations. The recent cyclone (Phailin) is a case in point. Three of our satellites – INSAT-3A, INSAT-3D and KALPANA – helped the Indian Meteorological Department during those crucial four days to track the cyclonic system,” he continued.
Radhakrishnan said programmes such as the Mars Orbiter Mission mandate the development of new technologies that then find civilian applications, which could benefit the common man. He pointed out that the development of a Charged-Couple Device found application in photography from space. It is now used in all cameras, he said. That apart, fishermen and farmers across India have already received the benefits of the country’s remote sensing programme, he added.
“Scientific cost-benefit analysis is completed in this area to track how for every rupee we are spending on our space programme, economic benefit is being derived. And, if you also take into account the saving that comes out of the support for the disaster management programme, it becomes a case in point,” said Radhakrishnan.
He explained that ISRO had to develop technology to give a high degree of autonomy to the Mars Orbiter to handle itself during the communication delay, and that this technology would find application in future remote sensing satellites, which would themselves judge the problem areas that need to be focused upon.
“So, we have no ambiguity of purpose as far as the space programme or its priorities are concerned, and as far as the need for the Mars Orbiter Mission is concerned,” Radhakrishnan said.
These fundamental questions apart, ISRO’s publicity and public opinion building campaign seems to have another angle at heart. Radhakrishnan has, in recent times, repeatedly expressed the need for India’s private sector to invest and develop technological and logistical capabilities in the space industry. He had said after the launch of the IRNSS-1A navigation satellite on July 1 that ISRO’s Space Applications Centre was in the process of talking to about 400 private sector players that ISRO works with to explore the possibility of a consortium to deliver increased benefit to the space programme through accelerated technology and capability development. He also mentioned that Antrix, ISRO’s commercial arm, was increasing its orientation towards the private sector.
Radhakrishnan expressed hope that the Indian private sector would develop its own launch vehicle within the next five years. Sources in ISRO said the publicity campaign is also partly aimed at bringing more investment in the private aerospace industry. The newfound ISRO Glasnost - read together with the publicity campaigns the nuclear power sector is undertaking in the wake of the protests against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project and elsewhere in the country - suggests that India’s previously secretive government agencies have now realised the value of rapid information dissemination to gain people’s trust.
Photo gallery: ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission
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