For hundreds of years human beings have wondered on what is going on in space.
Astronomers have searched for new celestial bodies and tried to understand what created the universe. Astrologers have looked at space from different perspectives in their search for the role celestial bodies play in managing our daily lives on planet Earth. Thousands of poems have been written about the moon. Prayers are offered to the moon. Lunar calendars govern the lives of many of us. Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO’s), Inter galactic movies and cartoons and everything to do with space has always fascinated us.
Yet it is only when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969 did modern man’s interest in space truly get piqued. His famous line “One small step for man. One giant step for mankind,” would probably be the most remembered quote in the World relating to space. I remember asking my mother on Karwa Chauth in 1969 whether the moon would continue to be as holy as before, now that man had stepped on it on 16th July 1969!
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement of India of Mission Shakti on 27th March 2019 about the successful test of A-Sat that put India in the select club of four with United States, Russia and China, this was indeed a giant step for India in protecting our rights and our borders in space.
This should make every right-thinking Indian very proud. I would be surprised to meet any Indian who does not want the best possible security or does not want India to join her rightful place as a super power. Unless of course they are looking at every step taken by this government through the myopic lens of the forthcoming elections.
The reactions from several opposition leaders were amusing and surprising. From comparing the cost of the launch to the impact on alleviating hunger in our country and from cynically comparing the announcement of A-Sat to that of demonetisation, the opposition politicians and the journalists who sympathise with these politicians did not leave any negative adjective in the book that they could find to counter the step taken by the government. Comments like “only 300 kilometers” to “only one satellite” demonstrated the complete ignorance of these individuals.
Then of course, there are a set of people who credit every positive step taken in our country to the “first family” of India. These people could not stop talking about India’s space programme and the Indian Institutes of Technology set up by our first Prime Minister.
But, let us understand why Mission Shakti is important for us.
- Over the years we have learned to accept the territorial rights nations have in the international waters. Territorial sea is defined by the United Nations as 12 nautical miles or 22.2 kilometers from the baseline of a coastal state. No such definition exists in space and the United Nations has also specified that no nation can claim territorial rights on any celestial body including our moon and our planets.
- Space is overseen by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. According to the United Nations Outer Space Treaty, signed by 102 countries, no nation can claim sovereignty over the Moon. Early explorers like Christopher Columbus and others who followed him over the centuries discovered new continents and established trading bases and colonies for their countries. Therefore, there is a race to reach and establish a presence not just on the moon but now on the Mars as well.
- Very few nations have developed the capability of building and launching satellites and India is one of these select countries. Even fewer countries have managed to develop the capability of putting a human being in space and India is fast developing this capability as well.
- Space is the next frontier for an ever-demanding human race that is constantly looking for more challenges. For India, it is critical to develop a strong capability of managing our presence in space. The Indian Space Research Organisation is one of the premier space bodies in the World.
- It is also worth understanding why developing rockets is important to the defence of a nation. A rocket is nothing more that a huge “guided missile” and this technology is available to India to fortify its borders dramatically. Mission Shakti gives us this much needed capability of targeting rogue satellites in the future.
- Space could also promise huge wealth to the people who conquer it first. This is the reason why Elon Musk and Richard Branson are investing large sums of money. If anyone can develop an economical way to reach some celestial bodies and return to Earth, think of the incredible mining opportunities that can be created. These businessmen are already talking of creating human colonies in space and there is a queue of individuals who are willing to take a “one-way” trip to Mars.
Exploration of space is an expensive process fraught with very high risks. Cynical reactions are understandable in the context of the elections but comparing the cost of space exploration to food and housing on our planet is short sighted and completely out of context.
NASA lost most of its funding after a few failed launches of its Apollo programme. President Obama reduced funding to NASA because of the fear of the fallout of a failure. President Trump has reinvigorated NASA and has called for Astronauts being sent back to the moon by 2024.
India has developed a new capability to defend our rights in space and we must be proud of this. The credit will always go to the government in power and opposition leaders have no choice but to accept this harsh reality.
Investing in space research is expensive. It is the future and it needs a lot of government funding.
More importantly, space research needs government will for its fair share of investment. Mission Shakti, our missions to the moon and Mars, our successful launch capabilities to low earth orbit (LEO) and to geo stationary orbit (GEO) show our capabilities to manage our growing presence in space. Our space scientists have the knowledge and the experience and can explore the last frontier to our advantage.
Only a strong government can continue to support and fund our much-needed space programme.
Such a Government needs our support.