Why are we going to the Moon again?

At 2:51 am on July 15, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch its Chandrayaan 2 mission on board a GSLV Mk III rocket from its spaceport in Sriharikota. The rocket will place its payload, the orbiter, in a highly elliptical orbit around Earth. Over the next 16 days, the orbiter will raise its orbit in five steps by firing its thrusters. After that, it will perform an injection burn and travel Moonward for about a week, before entering into an elliptical orbit there. Then the orbiter will lower its altitude in multiple steps and then deploy a lander named Vikram.

The lander will descend over the lunar surface and touch down on September 6 or 7 this year. Once ISRO scientists have performed basic health checks to see if everything is okay, Vikram will release a rover named Pragyan onto the lunar soil.

This will be the exciting start of Chandrayaan 2, India’s most ambitious space mission to date. Pragyan will spend two weeks on the Moon collecting scientific data about different characteristics of the natural satellite, after which its batteries will die.

If Chandrayaan 2 is successful, it will have placed the first Indian rover on the Moon’s surface. The mission will also signal India’s first big stride towards the Moon, paralleling that of other countries around the world eyeing the body as a stepping stone to deeper journeys into space.

The US, Europe and China all envision the Moon as a pit-stop between Earth and Mars, and hope to build permanent stations on the body. Indian officials have expressed similar hopes.

Such missions are bound to be extremely sophisticated, and extremely expensive.  Chandrayaan 2 alone cost India Rs 978 crore, and the upcoming human spaceflight mission Rs 10,000 crore. These costs are unavoidable – but they could be reduced by focusing on robotic missions instead of human ones. For example, Russia plans to have a Moon base by 2030 whose primary agents will be robots, with some humans to help them.

Chandrayaan 2 is India’s most complex robotic mission till date. At a recent press conference, K. Sivan, the ISRO chairman, acknowledged contributions from industry and academia to the tune of incurring 67% of the total cost. Given such resources are the bare minimum required to make an interplanetary journey work, the first countries to undertake these trips will also be some of the world’s richest countries – or groups of countries that have decided to work together with space exploration as a common goal.

ISRO could consider regularly reserving a few payload slots for instruments from countries that don’t have space programmes on missions to accrue diplomatic advantages as an extension of its ongoing efforts. That way, we can symbolically take more countries to the Moon and Mars. A South or Southeast Asian Moon mission, if it ever happens, could have significant R&D benefits for India’s scientists and engineers, even ease the financial burden on ISRO and perhaps edge out behemoths like China.

According to Sivan, Chandrayaan 2 will have a payload of 14 instruments: eight on the orbiter, three on the lander and two on the rover. Thirteen of them will be India’s, and one from NASA (a passive retroreflector).

At the moment, going to space has two purposes: research and development. Research precedes development, but development triggers the race. Scientists have built and launched satellites to understand the Solar System in great detail. But if someone is rushing to go to the Moon or Mars in the name of exploiting resources there to benefit humankind, it is because someone else is also doing the same thing.

It’s understandable that nobody wants to be left out, but it’s equally important to have something to do when we get to the Moon or Mars besides winning a race. Right now, Chandrayaan 2 is being billed as a research mission but a similar purpose is missing from ISRO’s messaging on Gaganyaan. As Arup Dasgupta, former deputy director of the ISRO Space Applications Centre, asked: “What do we hope to achieve after we have waved the Indian flag from orbit?”

In fact, it is not clear what will happen after Chandrayaan 2 either. ISRO officials have said that the organisation plans to build its own space station and also hinted that it might send Indians to the Moon someday. But we don’t know what these people will do there or if it also plans to send astronauts to Mars. Even the Moon seems desirable now only because it appears to be in speculative demand.

Most of all, we don’t know how all of these plans fit together to make up India’s spaceflight ambitions for the 21st century. We need a unified vision because these missions are resource-intensive, and won’t be worth the money and effort unless there is a longer-term version to help decide what our priorities should be to maximise resource utilisation. It will also allow us to be opportunistic (like Luxembourg) and regain the first-mover advantage instead of staying also-rans.

For example, ISRO also needs its allocation to build, launch and operate Earth-observation, resource-monitoring, communication, navigation and scientific satellites, to build and launch different kinds of rockets for the launch services market, to develop new spaceports and to design and build components for future missions.

If we wish more bang for the buck, then each launch must carry the best instruments we can make, backed by the best infrastructure we can set up to use the data from the instruments, and feed the best channels to use knowledge derived from that data to improve existing services. There are multiple opportunities for improvement on all of these fronts.

Further, a space or interplanetary mission isn’t just for scientists, engineers or businesspeople. In a not-so-drastic break with tradition, ISRO could for example index and organise all the data obtained from the 13 Indian instruments onboard Chandrayaan 2 and place them in the public domain to benefit teachers, students and other enthusiasts. It could incentivise ISRO to improve its data analysis and translational research pipelines, both of which are clogged at the moment.

There’s no greater example of this than the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), which were launched at almost the same time in 2014. While we hailed MOM for its shoestring budget, MAVEN has contributed to a larger volume of scientific data and knowledge, almost as if just getting there wasn’t exactly enough.

For now, we are all excited about Chandrayaan 2, and rightly so. The ISRO viewing gallery in Sriharikota will be packed with visitors on the night of July 14, the news media will be abuzz with live updates from July 15 onwards, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will likely be following it as well. The organisation’s public outreach cell has also awakened from its famous slumber to post a flurry of updates on its website, social media and YouTube.

But there will always be exciting missions coming up. After Chandrayaan 2, there is Aditya L1, Gaganyaan, a second Mars mission, a Venus orbiter, reusable launch vehicles, the small-satellite launch vehicle, heavy-lift launchers, etc., plus the ‘Space Theme Park’. None of these should distract us from whatever it is that we’re aiming for, and right now, that isn’t clear beyond an aspiration to stay in the picture.

The Wire
July 4, 2019