Criticism of ISRO

An orange megaphone. Credit: Oleg Laptev

The Statesman‘s editorial on India’s human spaceflight programme ends with the following line:

Only after placing the seventh and the last satellite in the NavIC system costing Rs 1,400 crore did ISRO realise the atomic clocks in the satellites had become dysfunctional, rendering the fleet a dud.

This line is wrong.

  1. ISRO could not have realised some satellites in the constellation were having issues with their atomic clocks any earlier, so the ‘only’ is misplaced
  2. Only two satellites out of seven were having issues with their clocks, and ISRO has made efforts to replace them.
  3. The fleet was rendered unusable but that may not be fair to say given it was temporary. The dysfunctional instruments have been replaced and the constellation currently awaits operationalisation.

There may have been other issues with the IRNSS but the last line in the editorial wasn’t it.

Another example: many people are of the impression that Narendra Modi’s announcement on August 15, that India will launch a human into space by 2022, caught ISRO chairman K. Sivan by surprise. This is true – but it was only the announcement that caught Sivan by surprise, not the ambition itself. ISRO has been preparing for human spaceflight for over a decade now. It is certainly not the sort of ambition that can be prepared for and achieved in four years.

However, NewsBytes said:

Commenting on Modi’s announcement, ISRO chief K Sivan had then said, “It came as a big surprise to us.” Yet, the question is, should it have come as a big surprise to ISRO? Logic says no. ISRO, being the agency responsible for all of India’s space missions, should ideally have been consulted before lofty promises were made. But, Modi went ahead with it anyway. Given the lack of notice, ISRO is now engaged in frantic attempts to recruit astronauts, improve existing technology, and develop new technology to meet the deadline set by Modi.

I’m glad more newspersons are writing critically of ISRO. But space is a sector where there’s very little low-hanging fruit that can be plucked and juiced into a political analysis, so there’s a lot more work required to separate a critique of ISRO from chest-thumping and render the former meaningful.

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Random thought: Facts can be assimilated into a bundle and bundles lend themselves to interpretation. Now, there’s bound to be a correlation between between the facts-to-interpretations (F-I) ratio and the correctness of news coverage. The larger the F-I ratio is, the more likely it is going to be find more small mistakes in multiple news reports (i.e. on the topic of those facts) and big mistakes in a few – i.e. bigger range. On the other hand, the smaller the F-I ratio is, there are likely to be fewer smaller as well as bigger mistakes – i.e. smaller range. Now, by comparing these two ranges across press coverage of a variety of technical subjects where quantitative answers are common (e.g. in physics but not in sociology), and using normalised values of F-I if necessary, would it be possible to elicit the relative strengths and weaknesses of the mainstream media among those subjects?

Featured image credit: Oleg Laptev/Unsplash.