The shadows of Chandrayaan 2

When in September 2019 the surface component of the Chandrayaan 2 mission failed, with the ‘Vikram’ lander crashing on the moon’s surface instead of gently touching down, there was a sense in all public spaces and conversations that the nation as a whole was in some grief. Until Wednesday, I couldn’t remember the excitement, anticipation, and anxiety that prevailed as the craft got closer to the moon, into its designated orbit, and began its descent. Wednesday was the start of the week before the second landing attempt, by the Chandrayaan 3 mission, and it all came screaming back.

Much of the excitement, anticipation, and anxiety that I’m feeling now as well is gratifying for the most part because it’s shared, that we’re doing this together. I cherish that because it’s otherwise very difficult to find with ISRO’s activities: all except the most superficial details of its most glamorous missions are often tucked away in some obscure corners of the web, it doesn’t have a functional public outreach unit, and there’s a lot of (unhelpful) uncertainty about the use of ISRO-made media.

But beyond facilitating this sense of togetherness, I’m concerned about ISRO’s sense of whether it should open itself up is now influenced by the public response to the Chandrayaan 2 mission, based on a parallel with India’s unfortunate tryst with solar cookers. In the early 1950s, the National Physical Laboratory fabricated a solar cooker with which the Indian government hoped to “transform household energy consumption … in a period of great uncertainty in food security and energy self-sufficiency,” in the words in The Hindu of science historian Shankar Nair. He continued:

The solar cooker was met with international press coverage and newsreels in the cinema. But the ‘indigenous’ device, based on a 19th century innovation, was dead in the water. Apart from its prohibitive price, it cooked very slowly. … The debacle caused the NPL to steer clear of populist ‘applied science’ for the remainder of K.S. Krishnan’s directorship.

Author Arun Mohan Sukumar recounted the same story but with more flair at the launch event of his book in Bangalore in March 2020:

A CSIR scientist said the failure of the solar cooker project basically ensured that all the scientists [who worked on it] retreated into the comfort of their labs and put them off “applied science”.

Here’s a project commenced almost immediately after independence meant to create technology by Indians for Indians, and after it failed for various reasons, the political spotlight that had been put on the project was counterproductive. Nehru himself investing this kind of capital exposed him and the scientific establishment to criticism that they were perhaps not used to. These were venerated men in their respective fields and they were perhaps unused to being accountable in this visceral way. …

This is the kind of criticism confronted by the scientific establishment and it is a consequence of politics. I agree with Prof [Jahnavi] Phalkey when she says it was a consequence of the political establishment not insulating the scientific establishment from the sort of criticism which may or may not be informed but you know how the press is. That led to a gradual breaking of ranks between the CSIR and the political vision for India…

The reflections of the solar-cooker debacle must be obvious in the events that followed the events of September 7, 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken of the Chandrayaan 2 mission on multiple occasions ahead of the landing attempt (including from the Red Fort on Independence Day). That the topmost political leader of a country takes so much interest in a spacefaring mission is a good thing but his politics has also been communal and majoritarian, and to have the mission invoked in conversations tinged with nationalistic fervour always induced nervousness.

Modi was also present in the control room as ‘Vikram’ began its descent over the lunar surface and, after news of the crash emerged, was seen hugging a visibly distraught K. Sivan, then the ISRO chairman – the same sort of hug that Modi had become famous for imposing on the leaders of other countries at multilateral fora. Modi’s governance has been marked by a fixation on symbols, and the symbols that he’d associated with Chandrayaan 2 made it clear that the mission was technological but also political. Its success was going to be his success. (Sample this.)

Sure enough, there was a considerable amount of post-crash chatter on social media platforms, on TV news channels, and on some news websites that tried to spin the mission as a tremendous success not worthy of any criticism that the ‘left’ and the ‘liberals’ were allegedly slinging at ISRO. But asking whether this is a “left v. right” thing would miss the point. If the sources of these talking points had exercised any restraint and waited for the failure committee report, I’m sure we could all have reached largely the same conclusion: that Chandrayaan 2 got ABC right and XYZ not so right, that it would have to do PQR for Chandrayaan 3, and that we can all agree that space is hard.

Irrespective of what the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ alleged, Chandrayaan 2 becoming the battleground on which these tensions manifested would surely have frayed ISRO scientists. To adapt Sukumar’s words to this context, the more cantankerous political crowd investing this kind of interest exposed ISRO to criticism that it was perhaps not used to. These were venerated men in their respective fields and they were perhaps unused to being accountable in this visceral way. This is the kind of criticism confronted by the scientific establishment and it is a consequence of politics…

The response to NPL’s solar cookers put scientists off “applied science”. Can we hope that the response to Chandrayaan 2 wouldn’t have put ISRO scientists off public engagement after Chandrayaan 3 ends, whether in (some kind of) failure or success? There are those of us beyond the din who know that the mission is very hard, and why, but at the same time it’s not like ISRO has always acted in good faith or with the public interest in mind. For example, it hasn’t released Chandrayaan 2’s failure committee report to date. So exercising the option of waiting for this report before making our minds up would have taken us nowhere.

(On the other hand, the officially determined causes of failure of the GSLV F10 mission – an almost apolitical affair – were more readily available.)

I’m also concerned whether ISRO itself can still construe respectful criticism of its work as such or will perceive it to be ideologically motivated vitriol. A characteristic feature of institutions overtaken by the nationalist programme is that they completely villify all criticism, even when it is merited. S. Somanath, ISRO’s current chairman, recently signalled that he might have been roped into this programme when he extolled “Vedic science”. If ISRO lets its response to failures be guided by politicians and bureaucrats, then we could also expect ISRO’s response to resemble that of the political class as well.

As always, time will tell, but I sincerely hope that it tells of one outcome instead of another.

Featured image: A view of the Chandrayaan 2 lander and rover seen undergoing tests, June 27, 2019. Credit: ISRO, dithered by