How much of a milestone is AzaadiSAT?

At 9.18 am today, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the first developmental flight of its new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), a three-stage modular launch vehicle designed to carry a payload of up to 500 kg to the low-Earth orbit and to go from assembly to launch readiness in six days. The existence of such a vehicle in the ISRO stable at this time is a milestone in and of itself but it’d be naïve to assume that Prime Minister Narendra would allow that to be the only one so close to Independence Day, that too the country’s 75th. So the SSLV-D1 mission will fly a satellite called AzaadiSAT in addition to the primary payload, an optical remote-sensing satellite.

As many news reports have been touting for a week (News18CNBC TV18Times NowHindustan TimesEconomic TimesWIONShe The People and PTI), AzaadiSAT has been “built” by 750 girls from 75 schools around the country. I put “built” in double-quotes because while the word appears in all these reports, it’s been misused. A company named SpaceKidz India (SKI) and NITI Aayog together conceived of the project. According to News18, SKI developed and tested “the main systems, including the onboard computer, flight software, electrical power system, telemetry and tele-command”. According to the SKI website, the company also “developed basic and simple experiments that students can learn and assemble with the simultaneous support of their science teachers and our SKI team’s online coaching”.

So what the students did was take existing payloads and learn how their software components fit together, using – according to Times of India – the Arduino IDE. Let’s be clear: this is a far, far cry from saying the students built the satellite! They did no such thing. “It’s just language,” you say, but that’s the problem, no? We’re claiming a feat that we haven’t accomplished. And by believing we’ve accomplished it, we have a higher estimation of what our students are capable of, what a national programme like AzaadiSAT is capable of, that is increasingly removed from reality. These 750 students have no idea what it’s like to build a satellite. In fact what they’ve done is much closer to what the likes of White Hat, Jr. purport to do – to teach school students to code different types of apps (and even then it’s hard to say if they learn the philosophy of computer science in the process).

This is Gaganyaan and the Bose hologram all over again: we don’t know what whatever we’ve done now means for whatever comes next. To be clear, the answer to this question is ‘undetermined’ in every case. ISRO is launching Indian astronauts to space on an Indian launch vehicle but the organisation’s officials don’t have a roadmap (at least in the public domain) for what Gaganyaan will gainfully do for the Indian space programme, most likely because there’s no plan for the Indian space programme itself that far ahead. Prime Minister Modi inaugurated a hologram of Subhash Chandra Bose in New Delhi except it is completely stationary, works only at night and for which the projector alone cost Rs 15 lakh (other capital costs and operational expenses separate). As a result, it utilised none of the affordances of hologram technology, was a costlier and flashier but also emptier substitute for a straightforward sculpture or metal cast, and only put Prime Minister Modi in the limelight.

Now, we have AzaadiSAT: a device with a six-month lifespan and not built by girl students but more like introduced to them after most of it was ready. In fact, according to SKI, it was “conceptualised” expressly “to pay our tribute to mark the 75th anniversary of Independence”. And why only 75 schools, 75 payloads and 750 students? The tokenism is bloody well cringe-inducing – more so if you consider the fact that “this is a first of its kind space mission with an ‘all women concept’ to promote Women in STEM as this year’s UN theme is ‘Women in Space’,” per SKI, while the control room and the adjacent viewing gallery were one big sausage fest.

SKI CEO also told News18 “that AzaadiSAT will also carry a recorded version of the national anthem sung by Rabindranath Tagore which they plan to play in space to pay tribute to the country”. If any song is played in space, it will be inaudible – the vacuum of space can’t transmit sound – so how will that pay tribute to the country? And if this song being played in low-Earth orbit is ‘heard’ via data receivers on the ground, it will be only because the song is transmitted to the receivers, and not because it was played on speakers. So is the point here that radio-scanner operators will be able to receive the national anthem transmission as a fun exercise? How would that amount to paying tribute to the country? (Of course, I don’t understand what “paying tribute to the country” itself even means.)

We seem to believe that simply exposing these students to certain concepts and/or environments that they might not encounter in the regular course of their schooling will somehow have a transformative impact on their academic and professional trajectories. This belief has been pervasive in institute-mediated scicomm at least, but there have been very few attempts to actually measure the extent to which this belief is justified. The SKI CEO even told WION that “AzaadiSAT is going to motivate more girls into the space industry or to take up STEM subjects”. We don’t know this.

It’s also often dangerously the case that the institutes, or even entities like the SKI, that make this ‘exposure’ argument also get away with superficial scicomm efforts that lack any continuous engagement or follow-ups. School students are exposed once to, for example, high-brow concepts like particle physics, gene-editing or remote-sensing, none of which has any relevance to what they’re learning in school at that time or what they need to pass their exams.

Many institutes are often eager to have their scientists speak to students enrolled in poorly funded schools often run by the local government in order to maximise the ‘impact’ of their efforts, but unmindful of the facts that a) they’re effectively talking down to these students with a view to “lifting them up” and b) they’re being ignorant of the conditions in which these students are studying and what they actually need over some scientist talking at them about why her work is important.

Why, these outreach efforts don’t even bother to check if all of the students shipped in from a local school are even interested in science or want to become scientists (which SKI sidesteps by picking only 10 students from each school). These efforts may be exercises in broadening one’s horizons but, as I said, that requires sustained engagement, not a one-off flash-bang event. On a related note, it’s curious why none of these students were present in the viewing gallery adjacent to the control room, where they could’ve seen launch operations in action, and were seated in the outdoor viewing area instead.

There is already some awareness that simply getting students to meet Nobel Prize winners is far less useful on multiple levels than having a smart and empathetic teacher. In much the same way, the AzaadiSAT seems like a lot of tokenism bundled into a project that serves nationalistic pride but leaves behind many open questions about whether the girls who all these news articles and press releases proudly claim built the satellite will regularly use the payloads they ideated over, and in a meaningful way – by which I mean both controlling the devices over time using code they wrote on their laptops or phones, receiving and processing the data from these payloads, and using them in a constructive way going into the future.

The question of access to the relevant devices is significant because, according to SKI, “Niti Aayog has partnered for this project to bring this opportunity to the Government school Girl children across India” – the same government schools that, in general, struggled to adopt virtual classrooms during the pandemic. An SKI video description also claims that the company picked students from “economically weak backgrounds”.

Building a satellite is no small feat but as I said before, these girls didn’t build the satellite. Our students should build satellites – it’s just that efforts like AzaadiSAT don’t represent this milestone. I remember when I was in college that an American professional organisation (can’t recall the name now) would provide some funds and raw materials to two groups of students – picked from the engineering streams – who’d then have to built rudimentary cars out of them with their professors’ help in two years and race them to win. A similarly long-term engagement with school students, involving all satellite components instead of just the data acquisition system, will surely be better than what SpaceKidz and NITI Aayog are currently doing.

And because ISRO actually launches satellites built by students for free into low-Earth orbit, we must ask what these satellites do. It’s been a decade of India launching student-built satellites and it’s been the same decade of our student-built satellites doing very little, if anything (surrounded often by deliberately misleading narratives) – other than making for press releases with a shelf-life overlapping with some nationalist occasion.