Being on the NSI podcast

Narayan Prasad, the CEO of SatSearch, hosts a popular podcast called NewSpace India. Every episode, he hosts one person and they talk about something related to the Indian and international space programmes. I was the guest for the episode published January 17, available to listen here (on transistor.fm), in which NP and I discussed India’s space journalism scene and ISRO’s public outreach policies.

Addendum: Where I’m talking about the comparisons between Jonathan McDowell and T.S. Kelso in the West and members of the ISRO subreddit, I repeatedly come back to the ‘not enough information’ bit. But later, I realised I should’ve added that McDowell and Kelso, and others, were probably encouraged to pursue their hobbies by access to knowledge and freely available information whereas India’s space-sleuths, so to speak, seem to be prompted more by the lack of information and knowledge about the national spaceflight programme.

So the former is a productive exercise whereas the latter is compensatory, and whose members’ efforts can be spared – or put to better use in other directions – if only ISRO spoke up more.

Another thing is that I may have overstated the extent to which I’m willing to forgive ISRO its PR fumbles because it’s an outreach noob. I meant to say that if ISRO can be cut any kind of slack, it would have to be on this front alone – but even then not much, and certainly not to any extent that would cede enough room for it to engage in the sort of coverup exercise it did with the CY-2 fiasco in September 2019.

NP is among the most knowledgable members of India’s space science and spaceflight communities, and has consulted for ISRO as well as a number of private companies on policy, strategy and business. I regularly follow his articles and his podcast, and I recommend you do too if you want to get a handle on the ins and outs of India’s modern spaceflight endeavour. The podcast is also available on Apple, Spotify and other platforms.

The virtues and vices of reestablishing contact with Vikram

There was a PTI report yesterday that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is still trying to reestablish contact with the Vikram lander of the Chandrayaan 2 mission. The lander had crashed onto the lunar surface on September 7 instead of touching down. The incident severed its communications link with ISRO ground control, leaving the org. unsure about the lander’s fate although all signs pointed to it being kaput.

Subsequent attempts to photograph the designated landing site using the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter as well as the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter didn’t provide any meaningful clues about what could’ve happened except that the crash-landing could’ve smashed Vikram to pieces too small to be observable from orbit.

When reporting on ISRO or following the news about developments related to it, the outside-in view is everything. It’s sort of like a mapping between two sets. If the first set represents the relative significance of various projects within ISRO and the second the significance as perceived by the public according to what shows up in the news, then Chandrayaan 2, human spaceflight and maybe the impending launch of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle are going to look like moderately sized objects in set 1 but really big in set 2.

The popular impression of what ISRO is working on is skewed towards projects that have received greater media coverage. This is a pithy truism but it’s important to acknowledge because ISRO’s own public outreach is practically nonexistent, so there are no ‘normalising’ forces working to correct the skew.

This is why it seems like a problem when ISRO – after spending over a week refusing to admit that the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s surface component had failed and its chairman K. Sivan echoing an internal review’s claim that the mission had in fact succeeded to the extent of 98% – says it’s still trying to reestablish contact without properly describing what that means.

It’s all you hear about vis-à-vis the Indian space programme in the news these days, if not about astronaut training or that the ‘mini-PSLV’ had a customer even before it had a test flight, potentially contribute to the unfortunate impression that these are ISRO’s priorities at the moment when in fact the relative significance of these missions – i.e. their size within set 1 – is arranged differently.

For example, the idea of trying to reestablish contact with the Vikram lander has been featured in at least three news reports in the last week, subsequently amplified through republishing and syndication, whereas the act of reestablishing contact could be as simple as one person pointing an antenna in the general direction of the Vikram lander, blasting a loud ‘what’s up’ message in the radio frequency and listening intently for a ‘not much’ reply. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of R&D, manufacturing practices and space-science discussions ISRO’s currently working on but which receive little to no coverage in the mainstream press.

So when Sivan repeatedly states across many days that they’re still trying to reestablish contact with Vikram, or when he’s repeatedly asked the same question by journalists with no imagination about ISRO’s breadth and scope, it may not necessarily signal a reluctance to admit failure in the face of overwhelming evidence that the mission has in fact failed (e.g., apart from not being able to visually spot the lander, the lander’s batteries aren’t designed to survive the long and freezing lunar night, so it’s extremely unlikely that it has power to respond to the ‘what’s up’). It could just be that either Sivan, the journalists or both – but it’s unlikely to be the journalists unless they’re aware of the resources it takes to attempt to reestablish contact – are happy to keep reminding the people that ISRO’s going to try very, very hard before it can abandon the lander.

Such metronymic messaging is politically favourable as well to maintain the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s place in the nationalist techno-pantheon. But it should also be abundantly clear at this point that Sivan’s decision to position himself as the organisation’s sole point of contact for media professionals at the first hint of trouble, his organisation’s increasing opacity to public view, if not scrutiny, and many journalists’ inexplicable lack of curiosity about things to ask the chairman all feed one another, ultimately sidelining other branches of ISRO and the public interest itself.

The mission that was 110% successful

Caution: Satire.

On October 2, Kailash S., the chairman of the Indian Wonderful Research Organisation (IWRO), announced that the Moonyaan mission had become a 110% success. At an impromptu press conference organised inside the offices of India Day Before Yesterday, he said that the orbiter was performing exceptionally well and that a focus on its secondary scientific mission could only diminish the technological achievement that it represented.

Shortly after the lander, carrying a rover plus other scientific instruments, crashed on the Moon’s surface two weeks ago, Kailash had called the mission a “90-95% success”. One day after it became clear Moonyaan’s surface mission had ended for good and well after IWRO had added that the orbiter was on track to be operational for over five years, Kailash revised his assessment to 98%.

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Kailash upgraded his score because despite the lander’s failure to touchdown, it had been able to descend from an altitude of 120 km to 2.1 km before a supposed thruster anomaly caused it to plummet instead of brake. “We have been analysing the mission in different ways and we have found that including this partially successful descent in our calculations provides a more accurate picture of Moonyaan’s achievement,” Kailash said to journalists.

When a member of a foreign publication prodded him saying that space doesn’t exactly reward nearness, Kailash replied, “I dedicate this mission to the Swachh Bharat mission, which has successfully ended open defecation in India today.” At this moment, Prime Minister A. Modern Nadir, who was sitting in front of him, turned around and hugged Kailash.

When another journalist, from BopIndia, had a follow-up question about whether the scientific mission of Moonyaan was relevant at all, Kailash responded that given the givens, the payloads onboard the orbiter had a responsibility to “work properly” or “otherwise they could harm the mission’s success and bring its success rate down to the anti-national neighbourhood of 100%”.

On all three occasions – September 7, September 22 and October 2 – India became the first country in the world as well as in history to achieve the success rates that it did in such a short span of time, in the context of a lunar mission. Thus, mission operators have their fingers crossed that the instruments won’t embarrass what has thus far been a historical technological performance with a corresponding scientific performance with returns of less than 110%.

Finally, while Moonyaan has elevated his profile, Kailash revealed his plan to take it even higher when he said the Heavenyaan mission would be good to go in the next 30 months. Heavenyaan is set to be India’s first human spaceflight programme and will aim to launch three astronauts to low-Earth orbit, have them spend a few days there, conducting small experiments, and return safely to Earth in a crew capsule first tested in 2014.

IWRO has already said it will test semi-cryogenic engines – to increase the payload capacity of its largest rocket so it can launch the crew capsule into space – it purchased from an eastern European nation this year. Considering all other components are nearly ready, including the astronauts who have managed with the nation’s help to become fully functioning adults, Heavenyaan is already 75% successful. Only 35% remains, Kailash said.

In financial terms, Heavenyaan is more than 10-times bigger than Moonyaan. Considering there has been some speculation that the latter’s lander couldn’t complete its descent because mission operators hadn’t undertaken sufficiently elaborate tests on Earth that could have anticipated the problem, observers have raised concerns about whether IWRO will skip tests and cut corners for Heavenyaan as well as for future interplanetary missions.

When alerted to these misgivings, Nadir snatched the mic and said, “What is testing? I will tell you. Testing is ‘T.E.S.T.’. ‘T’ stands for ‘thorough’. ‘E’ for ‘effort’. ‘S’ for ‘sans’. ‘T’ for ‘testing’. So what is ‘test’? It is ‘thorough effort sans testing’. It means that when you are building the satellite, you do it to the best of your ability without thinking about the results. Whatever will happen will happen. This is from the Bhagavad Gita. When you build your satellite to the best of your ability, why should you waste money on testing? We don’t have to spend money like NASA.”

Nadir’s quip was met with cheers in the hall. At this point, the presser concluded and the journalists were sent away to have tea and pakodas*.

*Idea for pakodas courtesy @pradx.

Review: ‘Mission Mangal’ (2019)

This review assumes Tanul Thakur’s review as a preamble.

There’s the argument that ISRO isn’t doing much by way of public outreach and trust in the media is at a low, and for many people – more than the most reliable sections of the media can possibly cover – Bollywood’s Mission Mangal could be the gateway to the Indian space programme. That we shouldn’t dump on the makers of Mission Mangal for setting up an ISRO-based script and Bollywoodifying it because the prerogative is theirs and it is not a mistake to have fictionalised bits of a story that was inspirational in less sensationalist ways.

And then there is the argument that Bollywood doesn’t function in a vacuum – indeed, anything but – and that it should respond responsibly to society’s problems by ensuring its biographical fare, at least, maintains a safe distance from problematic sociopolitical attitudes. That while creative freedom absolves artists of the responsibility to be historians, there’s such a thing as not making things worse, especially through an exercise of the poetic license that is less art and more commerce.

The question is: which position does Mission Mangal justify over the other?

I went into the cinema hall fully expecting the movie to be shite, but truth be told, Mission Mangal hangs in a trishanku swarga between the worlds of ‘not bad’ and ‘good’. The good parts don’t excuse the bad parts and the bad parts don’t drag the good parts down with them. To understand how, let’s start with the line between fact and fiction.

Mission Mangal‘s science communication is pretty good. As a result of the movie’s existence, thousands more people know about the gravitational slingshot (although the puri analogy did get a bit strained), line-of-sight signal transmission, solar-sailing and orbital capture now. Thousands more kind-of know the sort of questions scientists and engineers have to grapple with when designing and executing missions, although it would pay to remain wary of oversimplification. Indeed, thousands more also know – hopefully, at least – why some journalists’ rush to find and pin blame at the first hint of failure seems more rabid than stringent. This much is good.

However, almost everyone I managed to eavesdrop on believed the whole movie to be true whereas the movie’s own disclaimer at the start clarified that the movie was a fictionalised account for entertainment only. This is a problem because Mission Mangal also gets its science wrong in many places, almost always for dramatic effect. For just four examples: the PSLV is shown as a two-stage rocket instead of as a four-stage rocket; the Van Allen belt is depicted as a debris field instead of as a radiation belt; solar radiation pressure didn’t propel the Mars Orbiter Mission probe on its interplanetary journey; and its high-gain antenna isn’t made of a self-healing material.

More importantly, Mission Mangal gets the arguably more important circumstances surrounding the science all wrong. This is potentially more damaging.

There’s a lot of popular interest in space stuff in India these days. One big reason is that ISRO has undertaken a clump of high-profile missions that have made for easy mass communication. For example, it’s easier to sell why Chandrayaan 2 is awesome than to sell the AstroSat or the PSLV’s fourth-stage orbital platform. However, Mission Mangal sells the Mars Orbiter Mission by fictionalising different things about it to the point of being comically nationalistic.

The NASA hangover is unmistakable and unmistakably terrible. Mission Mangal‘s villain, so to speak, is a senior scientist of Indian origin from NASA who doesn’t want the Mars Orbiter Mission to succeed – so much so that the narrative often comes dangerously close to justifying the mission in terms of showing this man up. In fact, there are two instances when the movie brazenly crosses the line: to show up NASA Man, and once where the mission is rejustified in terms of beating China to be the first Asian country to have a probe in orbit around Mars. This takes away from the mission’s actual purpose: to be a technology-demonstrator, period.

This brings us to the next issue. Mission Mangal swings like a pendulum between characterising the mission as one of science and as one of technology. The film’s scriptwriters possibly conflated the satellite design and rocket launch teams for simplicity’s sake, but that has also meant Mission Mangal often pays an inordinate amount of attention towards the mission’s science goals, which weren’t very serious to begin with.

This is a problem because it’s important to remember that the Mars Orbiter Mission wasn’t a scientific mission. This also shows itself when the narrative quietly, and successfully, glosses over the fact that the mission probe was designed to fit a smaller rocket, and whose launch was undertaken at the behest of political as much as technological interests, instead of engineers building the rocket around the payload, as might have been the case if this had been a scientific mission.

Future scientific missions need to set a higher bar about what they’re prepared to accomplish – something many of us easily forget in the urge to thump our chests over the low cost. Indeed, Mission Mangal celebrates this as well without once mentioning the idea of frugal engineering, and all this accomplishes is to cast us as a people who make do, and our space programme as not hungering for big budgets.

This, in turn, brings us to the third issue. What kind of people are we? What is this compulsion to go it alone, and what is this specious sense of shame about borrowing technologies and mission designs from other countries that have undertaken these missions before us? ‘Make in India’ may make sense with sectors like manufacturing or fabrication but whence the need to vilify asking for a bit of help? Mission Mangal takes this a step further when the idea to use a plastic-aluminium composite for the satellite bus is traced to a moment of inspiration: that ISRO could help save the planet by using up its plastic. It shouldn’t have to be so hard to be a taker, considering ISRO did have NASA’s help in real-life, but the movie precludes such opportunities by erecting NASA as ISRO’s enemy.

But here’s the thing: When the Mars Orbiter Mission probe achieved orbital capture at Mars at the film’s climax, it felt great and not in a jingoistic way, at least not obviously so. I wasn’t following the lyrics of the background track and I have been feeling this way about missions long before the film came along, but it wouldn’t be amiss to say the film succeeded on this count.

It’s hard to judge Mission Mangal by adding points for the things it got right and subtracting points for the things it didn’t because, holistically, I am unable to shake off the feeling that I am glad this movie got made, at least from the PoV of a mediaperson that frequently reports on the Indian space progragge. Mission Mangal is a good romp, thanks in no small part to Vidya Balan (and as Pradeep Mohandas pointed out in his review, no thanks to the scriptwriters’ as well as Akshay Kumar’s mangled portrayal of how a scientist at ISRO behaves.)

I’m sure there’s lots to be said for the depiction of its crew of female scientists as well but I will defer to the judgment of smarter people on this one. For example, Rajvi Desai’s review in The Swaddle notes that the women scientists in the film, with the exception of Balan, are only shown doing superfluous things while Kumar gets to have all the smart ideas. Tanisha Bagchi writes in The Quint that the film has its women fighting ludicrous battles in an effort to portray them as being strong.

Ultimately, Mission Mangal wouldn’t have been made if not for the nationalism surrounding it – the nationalism bestowed of late upon the Indian space programme by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the profitability bestowed upon nationalism by the business-politics nexus. It is a mess but – without playing down its problematic portrayal of women and scientists – the film is hardly the worst thing to come of it.

In fact, if you are yet to watch the film but are going to, try imagining you are in the late 1990s and that Mission Mangal is a half-gritty, endearing-in-parts sci-fi flick about a bunch of Hindi-speaking people in Bangalore trying to launch a probe to Mars. However, if you – like me – are unable to leave reality behind, watch it, enjoy it, and then fact-check it.

Miscellaneous remarks

  1. Mission Mangal frequently attempts to assuage the audience that it doesn’t glorify Hinduism but these overtures are feeble compared to the presence of a pundit performing religious rituals within the Mission Control Centre itself. Make no mistake, this is a Hindu film.
  2. Akshay Kumar makes a not-so-eccentric entrance but there is a noticeable quirk about him that draws the following remark from a colleague: “These genius scientists are always a little crazy.” It made me sit up because these exact words have been used to exonerate the actions of scientists who sexually harassed women – all the way from Richard Feynman (by no means the first) to Lawrence Krauss (by no means the last).

Discovering Vikram Sarabhai

I just read through a collection of Vikram Sarabhai’s important speeches and papers compiled by members of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, to pick a suitable portion to excerpt on the occasion of Sarabhai’s birth centenary tomorrow. There was one portion I would have loved to publish but it belonged to a larger text that had originally been printed by an American NGO, and another the rights for which now belonged – of all companies – Elsevier. So I went with an eminently safe option: an enlightening convocation address Sarabhai delivered on August 1, 1965, at IIT Madras.

The purpose of this excerpt is twofold: to recall Sarabhai’s sharp mind and to remind India of Sarabhai’s views on certain matters the country is presently occupied with. The collection didn’t have only three instances of both these conditions being met; that was just the shortlist. The longlist contained multiple choices that intrigued me. In fact, taken all together, the collection painted an image of Sarabhai somewhat different from the one I had constructed based on what I had read in the news. For example, no doubt Sarabhai was smart but that smartness was devoted almost exclusively to industrial development. Most of his speeches, even including one on “the role science is currently playing in promoting national goals”, involve attempts to characterise a problem or ambition at hand in terms of utilitarian concepts and definitions, following which he analyses their pros and cons, or performs a comparative analysis, and sifts out a proper course of action.

It could certainly be, among other possibilities, that the PRL collected only those papers and speeches discussing quantitative measures in its collection, but it is still remarkable that in these presentations from 1959 to 1971, Sarabhai was seldom a story-teller and almost always a problem-solver guided by (what he recognised to be) the needs of the country. Without saying anything about whether this may have been a virtue in the India of 1960s, there is little to no evidence (within the collection) that Sarabhai was motivated to pursue any of his grand ambitions – whether spaceflight or nuclear power generation – for anything other than to transform India from being ‘underdeveloped’ to ‘developed’, together with Homi J. Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In fact, the sole exception to Sarabhai’s tendency to appear to be in control in the collection is the IIT Madras convocation address, riddled with rhetorical questions and groping for answers for sociopolitical problems within the principles of nuclear physics. This I hope you will enjoy reading tomorrow.

An award that isn’t

ISRO just put out a call for a one-time space journalism award, named for Vikram Sarabhai, with a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh. Here’s the doc with all the details. Pay attention to (4), where it says submissions will be judged on the basis of “articles/success stories”:

In other words (and especially in the absence of organised information about ISRO’s missions to work with), this is a call for articles that make ISRO look good, even if it hasn’t been good in many ways in the last 18-24 months. For example, ISRO’s official Twitter handle recently wished Akshay Kumar, Bollywood actor and unabashed Hindutva supporter, for the release of his upcoming film ‘Mission Mangal’. Its trailer has already been lampooned for its unabashed absurdity. For another, since early 2018, there has been a marked decline in the level of access journalists have had to ISRO insiders, and the spokesperson has also been becoming more unresponsive; others have also complained about ISRO’s newsletters being suspended without any notice.

Now, ISRO has invited applicants for what is really the Vikram Sarabhai Obsequious Space Journalism Award.

Two things further get my goat via-à-vis the award.

First: India’s media landscape is really fragmented right now, and many parts of it are either brazenly sucking up to the government or are deferring to the government’s might and publishing only decidedly optimistic stories (even to the point of contrivance). As a result, a media boycott – which in other circumstances would have been compelling – is out of the question. ISRO will have no shortage of applications for its award, and some journalists who are really stenographers of government-issue press releases are going to walk away with Rs 6 lakh.

Second: the name of ‘Vikram Sarabhai’ has always been earmarked for use by the Department of Space. But by attaching it to an award that doesn’t celebrate the goodness of good journalism but its antithesis, it feels like ISRO has acted against what the name has stood for: integrity. Sarabhai’s legacy is not ISRO as much as ISRO’s famous working culture; to use the words of a former employee, the org. has always doled out “promotions … based on performance instead of seniority and/or vacancy”. But on this occasion, the award – at least according to the phrasing in the doc – is set to promote not performance but servility.

Why covering ISRO is a pain

The following is a bulleted list of reasons why covering developments on the Indian spaceflight programme can be nerve-wracking.

  • ISRO does not have a media engagement policy that lays out when it will communicate information to journalists and how, so there is seldom a guarantee of correctness when reporting developing events
  • ISRO’s updates themselves are haphazard: sometimes they’re tweeted, sometimes they’re issued as singles lines on their websites, sometimes there’s a ‘media release’, sometimes there’s a PIB release, and so on
  • As opposed to the organisation itself, ISRO members can be gabby – but you can never tell exactly who is going to be gabby or when
  • Some ISRO scientists insert important information in the middle of innocuous speeches delivered at minor events in schools and colleges
  • Every once in a while, one particular publication will become ‘blessed’ with sources within the org. and churn out page after page of updates+
  • Like the male superstars of Tamil cinema, ISRO benefits from the pernicious jingoism it is almost always surrounded with but does nothing to dispel it (cf. the mental cost of walking some beats over others)
  • There is a policy that says employees of Indian institutions don’t have to seek the okay of their superiors to speak to the press unless when speaking ill; ISRO’s own and more stringent policy supersedes it
  • There are four ways to acquire any substantive information (beyond getting close to officials and following the ‘blessed’ publications): bots that crawl the isro.gov.in domain looking for PDFs, Q&A records of the Lok/Rajya Sabha, Indian language newspapers that cover local events, and former employees
  • If a comprehensive history of ISRO exists, it is bound to be in someone’s PhD thesis, locked up in the annals of a foreign publication or found scattered across the Indian media landscape, so covering ISRO has to be a full-time job that leaves room or time for little else
  • Information, and even commentary, will flow freely when everything is going well; when shit hits the fan, there is near-complete silence
  • In similar vein, journalists publishing any criticism of ISRO almost never hear from any officials within the org.
  • (A relatively minor point in this company) I don’t think anyone knows what the copyright restrictions on ISRO-produced images and videos are, so much so that NASA’s images of ISRO’s assets are easier to use

+ I say this without disparaging the journalist, who must have worked hard to cultivate such a network. The problem is that ISRO has constantly privileged such networks over more systematic engagement, forcing journalists to resort to access journalism.

Firstpost’s selfish journalism

I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of false balance, which is based on the conviction that there are two sides to every story even when there aren’t or when it’s not clear to anyone what the other side is. I’m also sure you’re aware of how journalism based on false balance can legitimise fake news and pseudoscience, as we used to see so often with climate change until the mid-2010s.

The problem with believing there exists a balance between two viewpoints where there is actually none is rooted in the belief that both points are equally valid, which in turn is rooted in ignorance and/or prejudice. However, it would appear there is another form of false-balance reportage that is rooted in selfishness and/or apathy – one where a publication publishes an article that, at some point, acknowledges that A and B are not equally valid but whose headline and lede declare that they are. Here’s a fresh example from Firstpost:

The lede goes thus:

After months of delay in its launch, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said that the country’s second moon mission — the Rs 800 crore ‘Chandrayaan-2’ — is designed to hunt for deposits of Helium-3 — a waste-free nuclear energy that could answer many of Earth’s energy problems.

Chandrayaan 2 isn’t going to prospect the Moon for helium-3, or any other potential sources of clean energy for that matter, if only because we don’t have the wherewithal to use such materials to produce energy. Second, the problem with C2, as with many of ISRO’s space science missions at the moment, is that there is no roadmap. I don’t know what or who Firstpost‘s sources were for it to have pieced together this BS.

However, after talking about this as if any of it made sense, the article quotes my article in The Wire to say “even if we are successful in bringing back huge deposits of Helium-3 from the moon, we are far away from having the technology to harness it”.

So what has Firstpost done here? a) It reignited the pseudo-debate over ISRO’s non-existent plans to mine the Moon for helium-3; b) it re-legitimised Sivan’s, and others’, ridiculous point of view that India should lead the way in this endeavour; and, most importantly, c) it cashed in on the fallacy even as it suggested it may have recognised that the helium-3 story is erected entirely on speculation and daydreams.

In effect, this is nauseatingly selfish and, insofar as it is journalism, apathetic. It does not have the public interest in mind; in fact, it completely disregards it. And in case someone demands to know how I can claim to know better than K. Sivan, who claimed last year that it’s important for India to be at the forefront of helium-3 mining, only that anecdote about what Bertrand Russell – a staunch atheist – would say should he come face to face with god comes to mind: “Well, I would say that you did not provide much evidence.”

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

Solutions looking for problems

There’s been a glut of ‘science projects’ that seem to be divorced from their non-technical aspects even when the latter are equally, if not more, important – or maybe it is just a case of these problems always having been around but this author not being able to unsee it these days.

An example that readily springs to mind is the Bharati intermediary script, developed by a team at IIT Madras to ease digitisation of Indian language texts. There is just one problem: why invent a whole new script when Latin already exists and is widely understood, by humans as well as machines? Perhaps the team would have been spared its efforts if it had consulted with an anthropologist.

Another example, also from IIT Madras: it just issued a press release announcing that a team from the institute that is the sole Asian finalist in a competition to build a ‘pod’ for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transportation concept has unveiled its design. On the flip side, Hyperloop is a high-tech, high-cost solution to a problem that trains and buses were designed to address decades ago, and they remain more efficient and more feasible. Elon Musk has admitted he conceived Hyperloop because he doesn’t like mass transit; perhaps more reliably, his simultaneous bashing of high-speed rail hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Here is a third example, this one worth many crores: the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) wants to build a space station and staff it with its astronauts. The problem is nobody is sure what the need is, maybe not even ISRO, although it has been characteristically tight-lipped. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a rationale beyond “we want to see if we can do it”. If indeed Indian scientists want to conduct microgravity experiments of their own, like what are being undertaken on the International Space Station (ISS) today and will be on the Chinese Space Station (CSS) in the near future, that is okay. But where are the details and where is the justification for not simply investing in the ISS or the CSS?

It is very difficult to negotiate a fog without feeling like something is wrong. We built and launched AstroSat because Indian astronomers needed a space telescope they could access for their studies. We will be launching Aditya in 2020 because Indian astrophysicists have questions about the Sun they would like answered. But even then, let us remember that a (relatively) small space telescope is too lightweight an exercise compared to a full-fledged space station that could cost ISRO more money than it is currently allocated every year.

Sivan’s announcements are also of a piece with those of his predecessors. In fact, the organisation as such has announced many science missions without finalising the instruments they are going to carry. In early 2017, it publicised an ‘announcement of opportunity’ for a mission to Venus next decade and invited scientists to submit pitches for instruments – instead of doing it the other way around. While this is entirely understandable with a space programme that is limited in its choice of launchers, this pattern has also prompted doubts that ISRO is simply inventing reasons to fly certain missions.

Additionally, since Sivan has pitched the Indian Space Station as an “extension” of ISRO’s human spaceflight programme, we must not forget that the human spaceflight programme itself lacks vision. As Arup Dasgupta, former dy. director of the ISRO Space Applications Centre, wrote for The Wire in March this year:

… while ISRO has been making and flying science satellites, … our excursions to the Moon, then Mars and now Gaganyaan appear to break from ISRO’s 1969 vision. This is certainly not a problem because, in the last half century, there have been significant advances in space applications for development, and ISRO needs new goals. However, these goals have to be unique and should put ISRO in a lead position – the way its use of space applications for development did. Given the frugal approach that ISRO follows, Chandrayaan I and the Mars Orbiter Mission did put ISRO ahead of its peers on the technology front, but what of their contribution to science? Most space scientists are cagey, and go off the record, when asked about what we learnt that we can now share with others and claim pride of place in planetary exploration.

So is ISRO fond of these ideas only because it seems to want to show the world that it can, without any thought for what the country can accrue beyond the awe of others? And when populism rules the parliamentary roost – whether under the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian National Congress – ISRO isn’t likely to face pushback from the government either.

Ultimately, when you spend something like Rs 10,000-20,000 crore over two decades to make something happen, it is going to be very easy to feel like something was achieved at the end of that time, if only because it is psychologically painful to have to admit that we could get such a big punt wrong. In effect, preparing for ex post facto rationalisation before the fact itself should ring alarm bells.

Supporters of the idea will tell you today that it will help industry grow, that it will expose Indian students to grand technologies, that it will employ many thousands of people. They will need to be reminded that while these are the responsibilities of a national government, they are not why the space programme exists. And that even if the space programme provided all these opportunities, it will have failed without justifying why doing all this required going to space.

The ‘could’ve, should’ve, would’ve’ of R&D

ISRO’s Moon rover, which will move around the lunar surface come September (if all goes well), will live and and die in a span of 14 days because that’s how long the lithium-ion cells it’s equipped with can survive the -160º C-nights at the Moon’s south pole, among other reasons. This here illustrates an easily understood connection between fundamental research and its apparent uselessness on the one hand and applied science and its apparent superiority on the other.

Neither position is entirely and absolutely correct, of course, but this hierarchy of priorities is very real, at least in India, because it closely parallels the practices of the populist politics that privileges short-term gains over benefits in the longer run.

In this scenario, it may not seem worthwhile to fund a solid-state physicist who has, based on detailed physicochemical analyses, fashioned for example a new carbon-based material that can store lithium ions in its atomic lattice and has better thermal characteristics than graphite. It may seem even less worthwhile to fund researchers probing the seemingly obscure electronic properties of materials like graphene and silicene, writing papers steeped in abstract math and unable to propose a single viable application for the near-future.

But give it twenty years and a measure of success in the otherwise-unpredictable translational research part of the R&D pipeline, and suddenly, you’re holding the batteries that’re supposed to be installed on a Moon rover and need to determine how many instruments you can pack on there to ensure the whole ensemble is powered for the whole time they’ll need to conduct each of their tests. Just as suddenly, you’re also thinking about what else you could’ve installed on the little machine so it could’ve lived longer, and what else it could’ve potentially discovered in this bonus time.

Maybe you’re just happy, knowing how things have been for research in the country in the last two decades and based on the spaceflight organisation’s goals (a part of which the government has a say in), that the batteries can even last for two weeks. Maybe you’re just sad because you think it could’ve been better. But one way or another, it’s an inescapably tangible reminder that investments in research determine what you’re going to get to take out of the technology in the future. Put differently: it’s ridiculous to expect to know which water molecules are going to end up in which plant, but unless you water the soil, the plants are going to start wilting.

Chandrayaan 2 itself may be lined up to be a great success but who knows, there could come along a future mission where a groundbreaking instrument developed by an inspired student at a state university has to be left out of an interplanetary satellite because we didn’t have access to the right low-density, high-strength materials. Or where a bunch of Indians are on a decade-long interstellar voyage and the captain realises crew morale is dangerously low because the government couldn’t give two whits about social psychology.

Finding trash in the dumpster

Just as there’s no merit in writing a piece that is confused and incomplete, there’s no merit in digging through a dumpster and complaining that there’s trash. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when The Quint publishes something as ass-backwards as this article, titled ‘SpaceX or ISRO, Who’s Winning the Race to Space?’, in a time when finally, at long fucking last, people are beginning to wake up to the idea that ISRO’s and SpaceX’s responsibilities are just different.

In fact, the author of this article seems (temporarily) aware of this distinction, writing, “You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals”, even as he makes the comparison anyway. This is immature, irresponsible journalism (if that), worse than the Sisyphean he-said-she-said variety if only because the ‘he’ in this case is the author himself.

But more importantly, against the backdrop of the I&B ministry’s guidelines on combating fake news that were released, and then retracted, earlier today, I briefly wondered whether this Quint piece could be considered fake news. A friend quickly disabused me of the idea by pointing out that this isn’t exactly news, doesn’t contain factual mistakes and doesn’t seem to have malicious intent. All valid points. However, I’m still not sure I agree… My reasons:

1. News is information that is new, contemporary and in the public interest. While the last two parameters can be defined somewhat objectively, novelty can and is frequently subjective. Often, it also extends to certain demographic groups within a population, such as readers of the 18-24 age group, for whom a bit of information that’s old for others is new.

2. The article doesn’t contain factual mistakes but the relationships the author defines between various facts are wrong and untrue. There are also assumptions made in the article (dissected below) that make the author sound stupid more than anything else. One does have the freedom of expression but journalists and publishers also have a responsibility to be… well, responsible.

3. You can make rational decisions only when you know everything there is to know apropos said decisions. So when you deliberately ignore certain details that would render an argument meaningless just so you can make the argument yourself, that’s malice. Especially when you then click the ‘publish’ button and watch as a clump of irrational clutch of sememes reaches 19,000 people in 18 hours.

So to me, this article is fake news.

Here’s another locus: according to Dictionary.com, fake news is

false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.

The Quint article is sensational. It claims ISRO and SpaceX can’t be compared but goes on to make the comparison anyway. Why? Traffic, visibility and revenue (through ads on The Quint‘s pages). It’s textual faff that wastes the reader’s time, forces others to spend time correcting the irrational beliefs that will take root in people’s minds as a result of reading the article, and it’s just asinine of The Quint to lend itself as a platform for such endeavours. It’s the sort of thing we frequently blame the male protagonists in Indian films for: spending 150 minutes realising his mistakes.

But again, I do apologise for whining that there’s trash in the dumpster. (Aside: A recent headline in Esquire had just the term for journalism-done-bad – ‘trash avalanche’.)

§

I must dissect the article. It’s an addiction!

India’s premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has built a reputation for launching rockets into space at very convenient prices. The consequent effect?

A lot of customers from around the world have come flocking to avail India’s economical rocket-launching services and this has helped the country make some extra bucks from its space exploration program.

Extra bucks, eh?

However, it’s a pretty competitive space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had a decent run in the past couple of days and the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket has paved the way for launching heavy satellites into space.

You don’t say…

SpaceX and ISRO are competitors of sorts in the business of commercial satellite launches. The question is, how big of a threat is SpaceX to India’s space agency?

Wrong + 🚩

Okay, first some facts.

That’s kind of you.

ISRO is an experienced campaigner in the field of space exploration as it’s been launching rockets into space since as early as 1975. From sending India’s first satellite into space (Aryabhata), to successfully launching some of the most historic missions like Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Mangalyaan (2013), ISRO has done it all.

You should check out some of the stuff NASA, JAXA and ESA have done. ISRO really hasn’t done it all – and neither have NASA, JAXA and ESA.

ISRO has carried out a total of 96 spacecraft missions, which involve 66 launch missions.

Apart from the above, it has various other goals, ranging from maintaining the communication satellite constellation around the Earth to sending manned missions into space. Not easy by any means.

Not easy to have goals? Have you seen the todo lists of most people?

Meanwhile, SpaceX is the new kid on the block and really isn’t a big space exploration agency (at least not as big as ISRO).

That’s a comparison 🚩

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk with an aim to provide economically efficient ways to launch satellites and also colonise Mars!
Overall, since SpaceX’s first mission in June, 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 51 times, out of which 49 have been successful. That’s a 96 percent success rate!

So, in terms of experience, SpaceX still has some catching up to do. But in terms of success rate, it’s tough to beat at 96 percent.

Do you know that if I launch one rocket successfully, I’ll have a success rate of 100%?

SpaceX is a privately-owned enterprise and is funded by big companies like Google and Fidelity. According to a Forbes, SpaceX is valued at more than $20 billion (Rs 13.035 crore) as of December 2017.

That’s Rs 1.3 lakh crore, not Rs 13.035 crore.

ISRO on the other hand is a state-owned entity and is run and controlled by the Government of India. Each year, the agency is allocated a certain part of the nation’s budget. For the year 2018-19, the Centre has allocated Rs 8,936 crore to the space organisation.

There is also a big difference in terms of cost per mission. For example, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s cost per launch comes up to $62 million, while ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) costs roughly $15 million per launch.

Why are you comparing the mission costs of one rocket that can carry 10,000+ kg to the LEO to a rocket that can carry 3,800 kg to the LEO? Obviously the former is going to be costlier!

The size of the payloads are different as the Falcon 9 carries much heavier bulk than India’s rockets.

Dear author: please mention that this fact renders the comparison in your previous line meaningless. At least refrain from using terms like “big difference”.

Currently, India makes very less on commercial missions as most of them carry small or nano-satellites. Between 2013 and 2015, ISRO charged an average of $3 million per satellite. That’s peanuts compared to a SpaceX launch, which costs $60 million.

First: Antrix, not ISRO, charges $3 million per satellite. Second: By not discussing payload mass and orbital injection specifications, he’s withholding information that will make this “peanuts” juxtaposition illogical. Third: ISRO and SpaceX operate out of different economies – a point incumbent ISRO chairman K. Sivan has emphasised – leading to different costing (e.g. have you considered labour cost?). Finally, source of data?

According to a 2016 report, India’s premier space agency earned a revenue of around Rs 230 crore through commercial launch services, which is about 0.6 percent of the global launch services market.

India is still to make big ‘moolah’ from their launches as small satellites don’t pull in a lot of money as compared to bigger ones.

That last bit – does the Department of Space know you’re feeling this way? Because if they did, they might not go ahead with building the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). So that’s another 🚩

Despite the fact that ISRO is considered competition for Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the business of commercial satellite launches,

Although this claim is bandied about in the press, I doubt it’s true given the differences in payload capacities, costs to space and launch frequencies of the PSLV/GSLV and the Falcon 9.

he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how he is “impressed” by India’s frugal methods of conducting successful launch missions.

Is this a big deal? Or are you awed that India’s efforts are being lauded by a white man of the west?

Last year in February, India launched 104 satellites into space using a single rocket, which really caught Musk’s attention. This is a world record that India holds till date.

If that’s not impressive enough, India also launched it’s Mars probe (Mangalyaan) in 2014 which cost less than what it cost to make the Hollywood movie “The Martian”. Ironical?

It’s not “impressive enough”. It’s not ironic.

You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals. But again, if Musk is impressed, it means ISRO has hit it out of the park.

But if Musk hadn’t been impressed, then ISRO would’ve continued to be a failure in your eyes, of course.

I am not going to pick a winner because of a lot of reasons. One of them is that I like both of them.

ISRO and SpaceX must both be so relieved.

SpaceX is a 15-year-old company, which has made heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle, while ISRO is a 40-year-old organisation making inroads into the medium-lift category; Not to mention it also has a billion other things to take care of (including working on reusable rockets).

Since the objective of both these organisations is to make frugal space missions possible, it’s no doubt that ISRO has the lead in this race.

How exactly? 🤔 Also, if we shouldn’t be comparing ISRO and SpaceX, how’re they in the same race?

Yes, there is a lot that SpaceX can learn from what India has achieved till now, but that can work both ways, considering the technology SpaceX is using is much more advanced. But in the end one cannot deny the fact that SpaceX is all about launching rockets and getting them back to Earth in one piece, not making satellites.