Sunday, September 28, 2014

Our MOMma

This was a momentous week in the history of the Indian space programme. I was waiting with my fingers crossed as MOM broke its slingshot around the Sun to settle into orbit around Mars. This prompted great celebrations everywhere, especially since ISRO got it right at the very first attempt - no mean feat, if you consider the sheer number of things that have to happen correctly and in the right sequence in order to get something from here to there.

The MOM mission also marked the first time that ISRO really tried to engage the public and capture the imagination of the common Indian. For the longest time in my life, I have been really frustrated about the absence of any sort of PR on part of the Indian space agency. I have always felt that it does great work, without letting any of its exploits be thoroughly appreciated by the public. It is a mentality that I have often seen in the Indian science and technology sector, where presentation is given far less importance than content. In an ideal world, that would be a fair balance. However, the fact of the matter is that science is as much a business as anything else, and the ability to project and sell one's work is an essential skill for any scientist to have. In the case of a programme as grand as this, projection and public involvement is necessary for its longevity. This change in ISRO's attitude towards the involvement of public outside the space sector is a welcome change. A quick look at ISRO's website would justify my happiness at their new-found internet savviness (on occasion, even taking to Twitter to talk to Curiosity). This time, they did not just ensure that they did something great. They ensured that you and I hung on to the edge of our seats on crucial days, waiting for updates and eventually rejoiced and celebrated their achievement - something that would probably have been restricted to about a hundred people in the past. More importantly, a very crucial audience was reached through this PR campaign - children in school. At a time when we are struggling to produce a mass interest in science and technology amongst children in school, an achievement like this can serve as a great catalyst to inspire many children to think of careers in this field. When I was growing up, I mostly harboured ambitions to work for NASA rather than ISRO, simply because there were no inspiring examples to look up to at the time. I hope last week's success gives children something to aspire to within their own country (it surely has given me a few things to think about).

Of course, the increase in public involvement is not without its side effects. All week long, I squirmed uncomfortably every time I saw that comparison between autorickshaw fares in Bangalore and cost per km for the MOM mission. A lot of factors contributed to the low cost of this mission (not the least of which are the exceedingly low labour costs in India compared to other space faring nations) that get conveniently masked by this "mileage deti kitna hai?" mentality. Of course, full credit to ISRO for avoiding monetary inefficiencies and leaks that often plague missions of this size. I also flinched every time someone used the word "jugaad" to describe what ISRO had achieved with this mission. In my opinion, this mission was about as far away from jugaad as possible, Indian resourcefulness notwithstanding. This was a feat of solid engineering, carried out in a very limited time frame on a shoestring budget. Good engineering and great attention to detail by a very dedicated staff is what ensured that almost no glitches were encountered despite all these constraints, not compromise and cutting corners - the orbiter wasn't put together with duct tape and rubber bands. In my opinion, these two comparisons seem to take something away from the tireless men and women who made this mission such a grand success. Moreover, there were comments on how we were the first Asian country to make it to Mars, and more specifically, how we beat China to it. Space has mostly been a competitive domain, but space is also a great opportunity to collaborate and focus on issues larger than territorial disputes. The focus needs to be less on how we paid less than the West for an autorickshaw trip to Mars and traveled faster than China, and more on the efficient work and flawless execution that made this trip happen in such a short time span (and where we can go with it). The MAVEN and MOM teams have already showed intent to work together as a team, which is an encouraging sign.

I'm wishing ISRO my heartfelt congratulations on this great success. I have really cherished following this mission since its launch last year in November and also the growth that I have seen in the agency's vision for the future. I am eagerly awaiting the unlocking of more of the red planet's mysteries. Who knows what the future holds. I for one am very excited about it.