A critique of Gaganyaan

Arup Dasgupta’s incisive article about ISRO’s human spaceflight mission, published on The Wire Science yesterday, is drawing a lot of civil, critical engagement from our readers. While this is good news from the newsroom’s perspective – civil engagement is always golden – I’d like to highlight two parts of it.

First: Dasgupta’s article is a more informed as well as a more authoritative version of one I penned in August last year, right after Prime Minister Narendra Modi first formally announced India’s human spaceflight mission. Though I may not have mustered the same argumentative gravitas that Dasgupta has been able, I stand by my arguments: Gaganyaan sounds cool, but what next?

However, the two articles have been received markedly differently. Mine was only trolled; there was no engagement worth speaking of. That Dasgupta’s take was more topically informed explains the difference, though I suspect only a part of it. I believe Dasgupta’s authority also mattered to the audience – an audience that appears to have trained itself to recognise the proxies of sense over sense itself. (Dasgupta is former deputy director, ISRO Space Applications Centre.)

For example, the following argument drawn from my article is common to both our pieces:

It’s not necessary for scientists and engineers to develop human spaceflight capability to be able to do other things. So why they’re doing it is a question of payoffs. Although its romanticism has been in flux, the accomplishment of sending humans to space remains prestigious enough to be a goal in and of itself. The deeper, more fundamental, question therefore is what the prestige stands for…

I also suspect the Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat in three state assembly elections last year made a difference. They constituted the first major electoral failure the BJP had experienced since assuming power at the Centre in 2014. After this, the party’s Twitter troll-army suffered a small – but not entirely significant – loss of conviction just as it indicated to the party’s opponents that they were making headway.

Of course, none of this is meant to subtract from Dasgupta’s text, which has given many a reader pause, encouraging them to reflect on what exactly ISRO is trying to do with Gaganyaan.

I should mention two caveats:

  1. When Siddharth Varadarajan tweeted a link to the article, it received a lot of retweets and likes – as well as a flood of replies that suggested the users assumed he was making yet another hare-brained allegation (from their PoV) without even bothering to read the text. That who shares what matters isn’t a new idea at all, but it is useful to know that the troll-army gravitates to him like moths to a flame lightning to a lightning rod and that when the background noise they represent has been removed, there is a signal.
  2. It’s possible that my article came out too quickly, suggesting that I was being critical of Modi’s announcement out of habit instead of having something legitimate to say. However, this would be no reason to dismiss my arguments.

Second: some responses to Dasgupta’s article have tried to take ISRO’s side, asking why the writer would assume the organisation does not have a long-term plan for human spaceflight when it’s possible that there might be a private document to that effect. This line of thinking is tenable, albeit briefly, because of ISRO’s near-complete lack of public outreach.

Where it fails is in the fact that Gaganyaan is a public enterprise in three ways. First: it is publicly funded. Second: the BJP has prepossessed its sanction for the programme as a sign of its own supposed enterprise. The latter happened with the Mars Orbiter Mission as well: the Congress, in power when it was sanctioned, took part of the credit and the BJP, in power when it was launched, the rest.

The third reason is the most important and draws from the first two. Gaganyaan, like the Moon and Mars missions before it, was green-lit not only because ISRO was able to persuade the powers that be using scientific arguments – given all three missions are scientific in nature – but also because whichever party was in power, and the BJP especially so, found a way to spin the narrative to their advantage.

In light of these issues, the demand for ISRO to publicise what information and wisdom it has vis-à-vis Gaganyaan is two-pronged. First, public sanction for a public project must place the project in full public view. Second, the people have a right to be able to access all particulars of a tax-funded project, especially if there is reason to believe it is founded on questionable premises. And the particulars must be constantly interrogable, and interrogated, to ensure that it remains accountable.

The burden of proof is on ISRO here. If they don’t provide the proof of their own volition, they deserve the criticism they’re getting.

Featured image: A GSLV Mk III rocket at the launchpad in Sriharikota. This is ISRO’s vehicle of choice for its human spaceflight mission, slated for 2022. Credit: ISRO.