Prime Minister Narendra Modi's warm, consoling embrace of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K Sivan said it all: One small step back for Chandrayaan-2 is a precursor to a giant leap forward for India's space programme.
Modi dispelled gloom and restored confidence at ISRO's mission operations complex in Bengaluru after the Vikram lander lost touch with the ground station, seconds before it was to land on the lunar surface. It was a heart-stopping moment, one that went beyond platitudes and politics.
The PM shared those nail-biting minutes of hope, uncertainty and mounting disappointment with the ISRO scientists every step of the way. He responded to the eventual denouement with equanimity, brushing aside the 11th hour snafu with heartfelt encouragement and praise.
“We are all proud of India's space programme. Today, our resolve to touch the moon has grown even stronger...There will be a new dawn,” he said.
The nation saw the PM at his most human and empathetic, genuinely proud of his scientists, grateful to them for their dedication and committed to backing their vision. He set the tone for the political establishment and on social media. From across the spectrum, accolades and cheers poured in for #ISRO and #Chandrayaan2.
The very fact of Modi’s soothing presence at the ISRO Telemetry Tracking and Control Network on Friday night, before the lander was to make contact with the lunar surface and after it went 'dark', made all the difference. There was no outcry of disappointment or criticism; the nation came together to celebrate its scientific prowess, rather than denigrate a setback.
It also underlines the importance that Modi attaches to ISRO, which has taken a lead in rocket and satellite technology (ISRO has launched almost 300 satellites for other countries, with 104 famously launched at one go.) So much so that the human spaceflight programme figured in the 2019 BJP manifesto. It promised to put an Indian “vyomnaut” in space in an Indian spacecraft, as part of the ‘Gaganyaan’ mission. Already, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has shortlisted test pilots for training as “vyomnauts”.
India's space programme speaks well of its technological and scientific capabilities and assures it a seat at the most exclusive high table of all: the comity of space-faring nations. There has been much speculation of a “space race” between China and India, with the former having stolen a march thanks to its human spaceflight mission and the planned Tiangong 'modular' space station.
But the renewed interest in space exploration worldwide, after the post-Cold War hiatus, is based on a pioneering rather than a competitive spirit, unlike in the 1960s. Private entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, not to mention the Mars One project, are less motivated by profit than the need to aim for the next big thing.
That is ISRO's vision as well. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan, ISRO's maiden interplanetary mission, has been orbiting Mars since 2014. Next year, ISRO plans to launch its Aditya-1 mission to study the sun. A second mission to Mars and another to Venus are on the cards, as well as more lunar missions. In the long term, ISRO plans to build a habitat on the lunar surface -- as a launch pad for further exploration of the solar system.
At this stage of human civilisation, it is hard to dismiss space travel as pie in the sky, or the stuff of Hollywood fantasies like The Martian. A hundred wannabe Martians – three Indians among them – were selected for a one-way ticket to the red planet under the Mars One programme. The company may have gone bankrupt, but others have taken the ball and are running with it. Musk, for one, is aiming for a manned mission to Mars in the next eight years, followed by a settlement.
Exoplanets, circling other stars, are now an integral part of post-millennial vocabulary. New ones are spotted every day and each new discovery of a potentially habitable planet in the 'goldilocks' zone of relatively nearby stars is a beacon for human explorers. A cornucopia of worlds and resources is out there and someday, soon, will be within humankind's grasp.
Space is the 'final frontier'. The PM has signalled, unequivocally, that India is committed to getting there.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)