India’s Moon Mission May Not Happen

By Mary Motta
Senior Business Correspondent
posted: 11:20 am ET
17 July 2000


WASHINGTON – Despite the media hype of the past few weeks surrounding India’s planned moon mission, the head of the country’s space agency says that a trip to the crater-ridden sphere may not happen at all.

"It’s not a question of whether we can afford it. It’s whether we can afford to ignore it."
     Dr. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization

"If there is any doubt on the scientific objectives, we will not go through with it," Dr. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization told in an interview Friday, July 14.

Dr. Kasturirangan said that news reports about India’s planned mission were blown out of proportion. The feasibility of a lunar mission will be "determined over the next five to eight years" once a team of scientists determines its "cost-effectiveness and India’s technological capabilities," he said.

ISRO scientists have been keeping their plans under wraps this past year. In October, at the annual meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences, the ISRO briefed the country’s top scientists on a lunar mission. "We made a presentation on the capability that the space program had to look at a lunar mission," he said.

Since that meeting, a team of scientists has been working to put together a project report to find out whether the nation is up for the task. If such a plan is feasible, the ISRO will eventually submit the report to India’s central government for approval.

The launching of a lunar orbiter would be the most ambitious plan so far by the ISRO. Besides having to build a hi-tech spacecraft, the agency would have to boost its rocketry and tackle the difficult job of navigating the craft at great distances, as well as operate it in orbit over several years.

In addition to the difficulties of putting together such a complex mission, the agency already has experienced opposition. Critics question whether India should spend money on such a program when nearly half of its population of 1 billion live below the poverty line, earning less than $1 a day.

Kasturirangan dismisses the critics. "It’s not a question of whether we can afford it," he said. "It’s whether we can afford to ignore it."

"They have caught a lot of flak [for the plan]," said John Pike of the Washington, D.C. think tank Federation of American Scientists. "But I can understand why it would be actively considered."

Pike said that such a mission is probably a reflection of the current political atmosphere since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's majority, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into office two years ago.

"The government that finally set off the bomb is very much about asserting India’s role on the world stage," Pike said. Pike was making reference to the May 1998 revelation that India was performing nuclear testing. That, along with previous missile proliferation activities, has caused a strain in U.S.-Indian relations over the past decade.

Indeed a lunar mission would heighten India’s role in global space technology. So far, the Indian space program has focused mostly on its sophisticated satellites for communications, meteorology and mapping natural resources, which have greatly benefited the country.

But a lunar plan would give India the opportunity to raise its profile as a serious player in the space arena. In addition, "the spin-off technology would be extremely useful for India," Kasturirangan said.

The 1990’s saw a major renewal of interest in lunar exploration. In 1998, NASA’s Lunar Prospector further ignited enthusiasm with the discovery of ice in some of the moon’s craters.

And Kasturirangan hopes that India will follow suit. "Obviously there is a lot more mysteries to the moon that may still be discovered," he said.

Kasturirangan has been known for positioning India’s space industry as one of the six major programs in the world. A giant step for a nation where bullock-drawn plows heavily outnumber tractors, and where 38 percent of the population is illiterate.

Earlier this year, the Indian government announced a major political policy shift, gradually handing over a once highly protectionist industry to its private sector.

The ISRO chief hopes to further transform India’s space program over the next decade by fostering joint programs between the Indian government and private industry.

In addition, Kasturirangan hopes that India’s innovative solutions for connecting large, mostly rural countries through satellite-communication technology will become the model for other nations. India, as well as China and Indonesia, for example, are hindered by the inability to lay fiber-optic cables because large landmass and varying terrestrial conditions make it too expensive.

Another one of his goals is to begin educating this mostly illiterate nation by broadcasting educational programs.

"Television and radio will play a major role," Kasturirangan said.

According to a study by consulting firm Arthur Anderson, televisions in Indian homes will grow to 86 million by the end of 2000, up from 68 million since the beginning of the year.