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The ISRO Ambition

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The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has made the breakthrough announcement that it is going to launch its own space station estimated to weigh around 20 tonnes and to serve as an extension of its Gaganyaan mission, India’s first manned mission into space. To quote ISRO Chairman K Sivan, “India will set up its separate space station in the next 5-7 years after Gaganyaan is fully completed in 2022.” The space station will most likely be used to conduct microgravity experiments (experiments in the outer space where gravity works quite differently from how it works in terrestrial conditions such as on the earth). As per the preliminary plan, the space station will accommodate astronauts for up to 15-20 days in space. Specific details about the ambitious plan will emerge only after the Gaganyaan mission is over. What the people of the country should take pride in is the ISRO’s serious and sincere endeavour to launch the space station without any collaboration with any other country, which means the mission will be entirely indigenous. There is a message here that needs to be emphasized far more strongly than what the media has been doing thus far: that India has marched quite well ahead since the time the ISRO was established for milestones in the domain of space science, and that its space scientists have been able to ride the crest of space science research despite financial constraints. In fact, such space science stories emanating from a country where both pure and applied science research has taken a back seat for quite a long time despite the talent pool available must hit the headlines of all major newspapers and TV channels, so that the scientists at work, and so diligently at that, are encouraged further to embark on more ambitious outer space missions just as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States is doing.

The only countries that have their known space stations are the United States, Russia and China. These countries, with their world-class universities and research hubs, have excelled in exploring the outer space by way of innovation and their governments not failing to prioritize space research in order to know the outer space even as they have identified and proved their mettle in human development indices too. There are sceptics in India who say that such missions as a space station, to cost over Rs 10,000 crore or so, would be a waste of money at a time when the country is still grappling with hunger, malnutrition and poverty. This is a myopic viewpoint, missing the larger picture. Had the genius in Albert Einstein, for instance, not marvelled at the miscalculation in the classical mechanics of Sir Isaac Newton and not thought of gravity as not just a mere fundamental force but rather a manifestation of the space-time curvature, we would not have known the Universe in such totality as we do know now; and had the ingenious Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics Stephen Hawking not told us the mystery of black holes (space-time entities that are so gravitationally powerful that even light cannot escape from them), and even black hole evaporation (named “Hawking Radiation”), we would not have known the mystery that the Universe holds in such utter secrecy. Therefore, when it comes to such domains as space science – both theoretical and applied, with the latter being augmented by such things as space stations for conducting microgravity experiments and for making life better on earth – governments such as those of India must summon the courage to make it big and contribute to the expansion of the humanity’s space knowledge. The Narendra Modi government, in its second innings, would do well to encourage such ISRO ambitions and missions more and more. After all, there is no doubt about the capabilities of our space scientists. What is needed more now is further autonomy and financial succour to our hallowed scientific and technological outfits like ISRO and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization).