Land on the moon, feet on the earth

Yesterday was fantastic. India made a few kinds of history, when one is great enough, by autonomously landing a robotic instrument in the moon’s south polar region. Some seven hours later, it deployed a rover, bringing the Chandrayaan-3 mission’s toughest phase to a resounding close and beginning its scientific mission, significant in its own right for being the first to be undertaken in situ in this part of the earth’s natural satellite. As a colleague told me yesterday, the feat is one that we can celebrate unreservedly – an exceedingly rare thing in today’s India. That, however, still hasn’t sufficed to keep either the accidental or the deliberate misinformant quiet. I woke up this morning to several WhatsApp-borne memes proclaiming, in different ways, that the moon’s south pole and/or the far side was now India’s. The spirit of the message is obvious but that doesn’t mean it can’t be mistaken. India’s feat is to do with the moon’s south polar region; the distinction of the first autonomous robotic landing on the far side belongs to China (Chang’e 4 in 2019). But the most egregious offender today (so far) seems to be The Indian Express, whose front page is this:

We are all over the moon but let’s keep our feet on the ground: India has achieved a profound thing by getting a robotic representative on the moon’s surface, and just as we took a long road to get here, there’s a long road to go. And on this road, we should develop a habit of seeing the moon as ours – including us and our collaborators – and make sure our expressions of joy have room for the spirit of cross-border teamwork. Let’s resist casting Chandrayaan-3 as comeuppance for past slights, as the triumph of a narrowly defined self-sufficiency, or as to make a mountain out of molehill – a deceptively dangerous misstep that can quickly confuse ability for entitlement. I would much rather always celebrate the former rather than admit even a little bit of the latter. Congratulations, Chandrayaan-3, and congratulations, ISRO! It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the events of August 23, 2023 – but it’s still possible.