Moon, mission and Modi

Should Prime Minister Narendra Modi not have been in the control room during the autonomous descent phase of Chandrayaan 2? Did his presence exert unnecessary pressure on the ISRO scientists?

I don’t know if the pressure was unnecessary. Irrespective of who was present where, a decade-long, Rs-1,000-crore effort is going to be high-pressure when it hinges on one threading-the-needle level manoeuvre. During major space missions like this, I think K. Sivan or similarly senior agency officials need to get used to the presence of senior political leaders in the control room.

Such a thing might not happen in other parts of the world but, to adapt the ideas in Mukund Thattai’s essay about whether there’s an Indian way of doing science, there’s certainly such a thing as an Indian way of doing space and it involves politicians in the control room.

Of course, I’m being careful to steer clear of any wishful thinking. I could have said for example that the prime minister should ideally have closely followed the mission but not from within the control room. However, Modi’s style of functioning has included attempts to steal the limelight on important occasions and one of the very few fortunate effects of this is that his deep interest in the space programme should increase ISRO’s likelihood of receiving more money and support for future missions. Whether such interest will morph into interference is a separate story.

In fact, I was heartened by Modi’s words at the end of the mission (assuming he meant them sincerely). I like to use the analogy of the Mission Mangal film: if it weren’t for Modi’s successful campaign to make nationalism profitable, the film wouldn’t have got made. Similarly, it would be wishful thinking to expect Modi to get involved but on any terms except his own.