India is often accused of not asserting itself in world affairs, of being unfocused, introverted, unrealistic or just nonaligned. That may be true, but when it comes to space, India's ambitions aren't at all modest -- and they just got bigger. On Nov. 5, the Indian Space Research Organization successfully put into Earth's orbit an indigenous, unmanned spacecraft, the Mangalyaan ("Mars-craft"), which on Nov. 30 will begin a nine-month journey toward Mars.
Only the U.S., Russia and Europe have successfully launched missions to Mars; of those, only the European mission succeeded in its first attempt. So if Mangalyaan were to traverse the 400 million kilometers (248 million miles) to the Red Planet, India would join an elite club. In 2008, India became the fourth country to successfully carry out a lunar mission when its Chandrayaan spacecraft helped establish the existence of water molecules in the moon's polar regions. But the Mars orbiter is without doubt the most ambitious project of the 44-year-old space program.
Indians thrilled to the news on social media. And for a change, the newspapers had some unambiguously good news and dramatic pictures for their front pages instead of the usual fare involving political disputes, a slowing economy, corruption and crime. Among the thousands of good-luck messages, there was one from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will provide logistical assistance in the later stages of the mission. There also was a little something on Twitter from scientist Richard Dawkins: "Congratulations to the scientists, engineers and mathematicians of India. Good fortune on the long journey to Mars."
Minutes after the launch, as Indians around the world waited for news, Sachin Kalbag, the editor of the popular Mumbai tabloid Mid Day, more or less captured the mood of the nation with this Twitter post: "Anybody who does NOT have goosebumps around here?"
What's most significant about the mission beyond the fact of its being Indian is its surprisingly low cost: about $73 million -- a fraction of NASA's Maven Mars mission (estimated to cost $671 million), which is scheduled for launch Nov. 18. This means that if its Mars mission is successful, India could in the future become a leader in low-budget space research.
Even so, the mission has critics. Development economist Jean Dreze, best known for his role in setting up India's huge rural employment-generation program, alleged that the Mars mission "seems to be part of the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status."
Meanwhile, CNN seemed to suggest that India was setting off an "Asian space race," interpreting the mission as India's attempt to prove a point to China, which launched a failed Mars mission in 2011. And an article in the Times of India was titled "Why Mars, Why Now?" It asked: "Before India, five nations have launched Mars missions. So, is India trying to be an also-ran? Why is India trying to boldly go where many have gone before?"
Well, in the 19th century, Oscar Wilde had to hold off his critics by positing the idea of art for art's sake. But who would've thought that after all the technological marvels of the 20th century, somebody would have to point out the value of science for science's sake? The disciplines of economics and geopolitics seemed to bypass altogether the passion for scientific advancement and technological innovation that must have surely been the main motivating factor for the 500-strong force of Indian scientists who worked long years to get Mangalyaan off the ground.
It is as if there is something intrinsic to India -- though not to the U.S., Russia or China -- that should prevent it from thinking of Mars as an object of independent inquiry not linked to concurrent progress in poverty-alleviation schemes. But Mars, as the Indian space expert Susmita Mohanty argues in this excellent interview, is just the next ambitious goal in a space-research program that is in its fifth decade. Mankind has been fascinated by the Red Planet throughout history (as John Updike writes in his beautiful essay "Visions of Mars"), but it's only in the last 50 years that we have possessed the technological resources to transform that wonder into knowledge.
These resources today might be deployed by individual nations moved by a host of different motives, including competitive ones, but the information they bring back allows all mankind to better understand its place in the cosmos. In his great survey of human advances in knowledge and technological capacity across history, "The Ascent of Man" (1973), scholar Jacob Bronowski thrillingly declares, "The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is pleasure in his own skill." If Mangalyaan makes it to Mars next year, that's the pleasure that millions of people -- mostly, but not exclusively, Indians -- would take in the achievement.
On another note, Updike's essay references the fascination of many ancient civilizations for Mars, but not India's. The lunar Hindu calendar and ancient Indian system of astrology attest that Indians have long oriented their lives by studying the cycles of heavenly bodies and ascribing to them patterns of influence over their own affairs. Mars in Indian astrology is the malefic planet Mangal, which casts a destructive spell on human lives, requiring complex acts of neutralization. But alongside the long-established Mars-craft of Vedic astrology, there should exist as well an Indian Mars-craft of science. In Mangalyaan, India's space-research community has found it.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)
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