Chandrayaan 2; if at first you don’t succeed..

… try, try again

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is the crown jewel of India’s applied science and engineering institutions, having developed reliable satellite launching capabilities as well the ability to pull off “first world” space missions of great complexity and ingenuity. After a string of recent successes, including the innovative Mangalyaan mission to Mars, the agency planned to land on the South polar region of the moon and use a locally developed rover (Pragyan) to explore the lunar surface and carry out various experiments. This mission (Chandrayaan 2) was initially conceived as a joint mission with Russia and was approved by the UPA govt led by Dr Manmohan Singh in 2008. The Russians later dropped out of the project (they were mainly responsible for developing the landing vehicle that would travel from the orbiter in lunar orbit down to the lunar surface), so ISRO decided to go ahead with the mission on their own. Given ISRO’s recent successes and the rising tide of Indian Nationalism (and the generally science-illiterate level of Indian media) the mission generated intense hype within India, but with very little communication to the general public of the extremely difficult technical challenges that have to be overcome to successfully land a vehicle on the moon (and the significant risk of failure, even in the best run missions).

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Unfortunately, the Vikram Lander did run into trouble and appears to have crashed onto the moon after something went wrong in the last stages of its descent to the lunar surface. Given the complexity of the technological challenges (first and foremost, the fact that it is too far from the earth to be controlled by ground engineers on earth, it has to do the job autonomously) this is not a totally unexpected outcome (per my technology-literate fellow blogger @kaeshour the probability of success was 40%). As the saying goes, “space is hard” , failures unfortunately happen with some regularity and have happened in every space program. Still, it was heartbreaking to see the disappointment on the face of the ISRO scientists as the lander lost contact with the earth and a nation of over a billion people faced deep disappointment after tremendous hype had been built up around the mission. (as an aside, the mission is far from a complete failure. The lunar orbiter is in orbit around the moon, conducting experiments as intended and will continue to do so for many years. It remains to be seen if anything is still functional on the lander)

ISRO itself is a very professional organization and will no doubt continue its stellar work, but even the hype around the mission does not have to end in disappointment and disillusionment. Instead it is likely that the last minute loss will itself become a vehicle for “soft power” phenomena including everything from a greater interest in science and engineering to a paradoxical renewal of national pride and unity (e.g. someone on my twitter feed described the video of PM Modi hugging a weeping ISRO chairman as a boost to Indian asabiya; I can see why that may be so). The loss was followed by messages of support and appreciation for the fact that India could conceive, create and almost successfully carry out a mission of such complexity and difficulty (the exception being the science minister of Pakistan, who managed to set new records of boorishness and idiocy in his twitter feed)

Be that as it may, the topic of the Indian space program always brings up a few recurrent critical memes, and this setback may see a few of those resurface as well. One is the question of whether a poor country such as India should be spending money on a space program. The other is a relatively new one: that the “Hindu Nationalist” government of Narendra Modi uses space achievements as a means to boost “toxic nationalism”. As is usually the case, the two memes have merged in some cases to create what one may call the “New York Times style guide to writing about the Indian space program” (though to be fair in its latest article the NYT has managed to soften the “poor Indians wasting money on space” theme and devoted only one sentence to Mr Modi’s “muscular nationalism”). How valid are these criticisms?

The first one can be broken down into questions: 1. What good is a space program? and 2. How much should country X spend on a space program?

Q1 is easy to answer. A space program is not some sort of purely symbolic act of “conspicuous consumption”. Space is now an industry worth 100s of billions of dollars, with vast applications in communications, mapping, scientific research, military use, entertainment, etc. It is not like a statue or a monument whose only worth comes from its symbolism (and even that is something all human societies do, as an essential component of “soft power” and the building of group identity, etc). There is no question about the fact that earth orbit applications are now a routine part of our economic and scientific life, so there can be no question about the fact that someone needs to have a space program, though everyone may not be in a position to participate. Further out (the moon, mars, the sun, and beyond) the question becomes a little trickier, but quite apart from spinoff engineering applications (not trivial in itself), the purely scientific merit of these efforts is considerable. There is a very real (but very hard to quantify and analyze) human urge to know, to explore, to do what has never been done. It is this urge that has led humans from the African savannah  to the moon and beyond and whatever some naysayers may say about it, it is a part of human nature, and it not a trivial part. Nerds across the world will not need convincing on this account, but it extends beyond the nerdsphere and is really a part of all of us and I see no reason to deny it.

Q2 is trickier, but the first thing to keep in mind is that nation states are aggregate entities and a large country with many poor people still possesses far more resources at govt level than a small country with rich people. Pakistan has a space program, but Lichtenstein does not, even though on a per capita basis Lichtendstein is orders of magnitude richer than Pakistan. Costa Rica is better off than Brazil, but Brazil has a space program and Costa Rica does not. This is natural and perfectly expected. India is a country with far too many poor people, but it is also a HUGE country, with a 2.5 trillion dollar economy. It can afford a space program. How much it should spend on that program is open to debate, but it is hard to say that it spends too much at this time. People will go further and say the most ridiculous things about this; i remember reading an article somewhere many years ago where the writer asked if 10,000 (or whatever) engineers and scientists at ISRO would not be better employed building toilets in a country with so much open defecation. This is so silly it does not need to be discussed much further (anyone who seriously thinks the engineers of ISRO could be sent to build toilets in Indian villages, and that this would be a good use of their talents, is not someone you want to waste time debating; leaving aside the fact that building these toilets is already a huge project in India and does not need help form ISRO), but we can agree that how much gets spend on ISRO is a valid debate. My own view is that it is, if anything, not enough, but others can have different opinions. Whatever opinion they have, it would be useful to look at this not in isolation as “ISRO vs Toilets” but as just one component in a huge Indian national budget, in which huge chunks are wasted on items much less useful (practically and symbolically) than ISRO.

The criticism that space projects are a way to promote “jingoistic nationalism” may have some merit to it, but not much. We can (I hope) agree on the everyday usefulness of the broader space program, but high risk moonshots and trips to Mars have less immediate practical returns; so it can be argued that the scientific research projects (which are sometimes of no immediate economic benefit) should be left to richer nations to pursue. But there is a huge “soft power” aspect of this and the most important returns may not be the jingoistic nationalism ones (though these obviously exist as well). In a country like India, these events play a huge (but hard to quantify?) role in promoting scientific literacy, the image of working women,  a culture of engineering excellence, innovation and creativity. That alone would be worth the price of such a mission (in this case, under 200 million dollars, i.e. 2-3 Rafale aircraft?). But coming to the nationalism issue, what is really being said here is that the writer does not approve of this particular nationalism. I doubt if even one Marxist-Leninist in the world failed to feel pride and joy at the launch of Sputnik. I am confident that none of them wrote op-eds asking why Russia is investing billions in space when so many of their own citizens cannot even afford their own one room apartment. The question is really about whether the writer likes the Modi govt (or India as a whole) or not. Now there are good reasons to be critical of the BJP govt in India, but my point is that 1. this is about India, Indian science and Indian pride and does not have to be about the Modi govt. 2. The “soft power” benefits of this particular project (science awareness and ambitions in India, higher standards for Indian engineering, science, organization and institutions) are more than just “muscular nationalism”. 3. “Muscular nationalism” itself is a feature of this world of nation states. Russia, America, China, Pakistan, everyone does it. The hippie in me is wary of all of them, but no more wary of the Indian variety than any other. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. People who do not criticize Russian, Chinese, American or XYZ space programs being used as nationalist symbols should apply the same standards to India, nothing more, nothing less. That means those who are critical of ALL these programs (and such people exist and are frequently sincere and well meaning people) should carry on, everyone else can shut up.

Personally, I think it was a great effort and much of it succeeded (that orbiter is still going around the moon, and will be for years to come); unfortunately the lander failed, but such things happen. Better luck next time..

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One and the same be your resolve, and be your minds of one accord.
United be the thoughts of all, that all may happily agree. (Rig Veda, last mantra)

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

20 thoughts on “Chandrayaan 2; if at first you don’t succeed..”

  1. Lord Omar,

    What are your thoughts on the Pakistani Science minister taking to Twitter to mock India for it’s failure and popularize the hashtag #IndiaFailed?

    Also, what are your thoughts on Shri Sivan Ji being an AASI af bossman. To me it’s almost as inspirational as Obama becoming President of the US.

  2. People seem to overlook the massive evacuations of Orissa India usually undertakes during Cyclone season. This is possible only with satellite recon. This has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the years (possibly even millions).
    Let’s say the number is 1mm, even if the space program never made a dime and cost 10B, wouldn’t you say the life of one Indian ought to be worth $10k to the government.

    This is leaving aside the really simple balance sheet fact that the space program is actually profitable. It is a reasonably cheap way of launching and countries pay India to launch their satellites.

    It’s fairly clear then that criticism comes from (i) Jealousy (ii) The urge to say something provocative and attract attention to an otherwise unremarkable personality (iii) Professional humanitarians whose addressable market would be highly curtailed if India were to do away with absolute poverty. (iv) The Poverty porn industry and its supply chain

  3. “People who do not criticize Russian, Chinese, American or XYZ space programs being used as nationalist symbols should apply the same standards to India, nothing more, nothing less. ”

    This is quite obvious. Lately, though, I see a trend in cybersphere which accuses those who point out such displays of double standards as being guilty of something called “what-aboutery”. Apparently what-aboutery is the ability to call someone on their hypocrisy.

    1. Apparently what-aboutery is the ability to call someone on their hypocrisy.

      Sometimes it can. But the way I see whataboutism (that’s the typically used word) being employed is to stop people from criticizing person X because those people failed to criticize everyone else in the world for doing whatever X did. It’s typically employed to absolve the targets of X’s criticism on the grounds that others have gotten away in the past with similar acts.

      1. Not sure I buy that. You dont have to criticise “everyone else in the world who “. But if you never criticise anyone in the world who does whatever done by your regular object of criticism you are probably correctly identified as a hypocrite pushing an agenda.

        I know people who admire Stalin and Mao and who point fingers at some long-dead Jan Sangh leaders who said approving things about Hitler years ago. It isnt whataboutery to dismiss their love for democracy as BS.

        1. But if you never criticise anyone in the world who does whatever done by your regular object of criticism you are probably correctly identified as a hypocrite pushing an agenda.

          How do you evaluate “never criticized”? Do you know everything that person has said ever? If not, and you are judging that person on one comment/criticism plus assuming that they have chosen a target because of a political agenda, I’d call it whataboutism.

          And just think for a moment. If this is the standard you are going to employ, no one can ever criticize anything in a way that will satisfy you, because they will have to criticize all the things worth criticizing first to avoid charges of hypocrisy.

          For example: if I criticize our government’s current high-handedness in Kashmir, will you call me a hypocrite for not adding criticisms of the other 10347 cases of high-handededness by governments the world over in the past century (I’m just making up a number)? Perhaps I am critical of those 10347 incidents, but then I wasn’t born when many of them happened, many of those may not be relevant today, and just perhaps I care far more about what’s happening in my country than in far-flung corners of the world.

          Do you see where this is going?

          1. “How do you evaluate “never criticized”? Do you know everything that person has said ever?”

            Numinous, you use rather extreme verbiage e.g. “knowing everything said ever”, “criticising every person in the world” etc. Somewhere between “everything ever” and “nothing never” sits everyday discourse. One can observe someone’s behaviour over a period of time and form an impression.

            By your standard one must never ever accuse someone of double standards or indeed criticise anyone for anything. After all, we can never know every single thing they have done or said ever. Heck. Modi may well be a paragon of secularism since we haven’t observed him every second of his life.

        2. FWIW, I agree with your point about Communists accusing right-wingers of illiberalism. That’s the rankest hypocrisy.

          But that’s not what people are talking about when they use the term “whataboutism” pejoratively. It’s used for the kinds of things I’ve mentioned in my previous comments.

  4. While I do sympathize with this view, I have heard that ISRO used sub-standard material for the mission (like the trajectory tracking software or the processors). Please correct me if I am wrong about this.
    This kind of daredevilry doesn’t go well with sensitive missions that require the execution to be as accurate as physically possible.

  5. I love astronomy. It was my first intellectual interest as a kid.

    With regards to poverty vs. science, it may surprise a lot of you but similar debates played out in the U.S. in the 1960’s. At that time, there was vast urban and rural poverty, limited safety net, as well as significant social strife. Every single leftist, civil rights leader, etc. were all opposed to the space project. Surveys showed that even after the successful moon landing – the single greatest achievement in human history – a large chunk of the U.S. population (40%+) believed that NASA’s efforts were a waste and would prefer the money to be spent on welfare handouts.

    I think the achievements of ISRO are tremendous. No doubt they will get there next time. Whole country, who can’t agree on much other than cricket is behind ISRO.

    “While I do sympathize with this view, I have heard that ISRO used sub-standard material for the mission (like the trajectory tracking software or the processors). Please correct me if I am wrong about this.”

    Well, these guys are working on a budget. They haven’t got billions of dollars to spend happily on handouts to Lockheed Martin, IBM. They do stuff in house by themselves.

    20 years ago NASA lost the same amount of money on a probe because someone bungled imperial for metric units:

  6. “Instead it is likely that the last minute loss will itself become a vehicle for “soft power” phenomena including everything from a greater interest in science and engineering to a paradoxical renewal of national pride and unity”

    My parents are (mostly) science illiterate.

    Ten years ago, my mom would have ideally wanted my brother and me to take the civil services exam and become sahibs. Or in the worst case, take the typical MBA route and become executives at some big private company.

    Now my mom wants my to-be physicist younger brother to come back to India and work at ISRO.

    Today, she called me up after the Vikram lander was spotted and was almost crying at the news.

    It seems a bit weird but yeah, I can definitely see a remarkable attitude change. At least in my family.

    Almost like they’ve been exposed to ambitions that were not even on the radar earlier. I hope it’s happening across the country.

    1. That is interesting, though a bit weird (to me.) My folks have been science-literate for over 3 generations now, and the scientific achievements of the latter part of the 20th century inspired them a lot, but not in the way you describe. The message then was always that India was a dead end/black hole for science and engineering; “Go West, Young Man/Woman” was the message. NASA was a highly sought out target, especially after people heard that Indians worked there too.

      Is the current clamor more about science or about nationalism, in your opinion? Is working for ISRO more about discovering new things or enhancing the glory of the nation? (Not that this motivation is special to India; the NASA space program was inspired by Cold war competition)

      1. “Is the current clamor more about science or about nationalism, in your opinion? Is working for ISRO more about discovering new things or enhancing the glory of the nation?”

        I think it’s a combination of both but the latter feeds into the former. The fact that a scientific achievement is considered worth celebrating and is given so much coverage increases interest in science generally.

        I do not mean interest as in people actually trying to understand the scientific process or how things work. We are a long long way from that yet. But more from this PoV-

        In large parts of the country, especially north India,’artisanal’ kind of jobs are not considered prestigious – hands on engineering, science, cooking, designing etc. The most sought after careers are ones where you get to supervise others – babus, executives, or any kind of ‘manager’.

        This might be because most small town people have never really met a scientist or a high-tech engineer or even a chef. Parents often discourage kids from pursuing the former too much.
        In my opinion, that will start to change a bit because of the media coverage.

        It will take a few generations before we actually have a large enough mass of people who are interested in science for the sake of it.

  7. To me the Pak science minister’s unabashed glee at Chandrayaan’s lander module’s failure brings a touching human element to the whole episode. Subcontinental people are so child-like and emotional.

    Chinese are probably celebrating too. They just won’t say so in public. Hypocrites!

    1. It wasn’t just their science minister. Even an MP and their DGISPR or whatever that Ghafoori fellow was celebrating. Pak twitter in general was going wild, with #IndiaFailed trending.

      Let’s not assume how the Chinese feel, though.

  8. Nice piece. Just a few comments to clarify things said in the article and in various comments above.

    I’m not sure where Slapstik’s assignment of 40% probability of success comes from (perhaps past records of other agencies attempts)? The fact of the matter is, space agencies work according to a well defined protocol of risk assessment, known as technological readiness levels (TRL’s). NASA and ESA have slightly different protocols, but no-one sends anything into space unless it has been extensively tested on the ground with possible space conditions simulated, which is the penultimate, or next to penultimate TRL depending on who you are. This cannot be an exhaustive process on the ground, so until the damn thing goes up, the most you can say is that you’ve identified (and hopefully engineered for) everything up to the unknown unknowns.

    Even successful missions have multiple component failures — redundancy engineering is the key to ensuring things still have a shot of working, but this sends the costs up (both in terms of hardware and payload mass). This is where ISRO and the recent failed Beresheet mission were parsimonious by design. In fact, I’d say ISRO has been unreasonably successful of late given the minimal redundancy they deliberately aim to work with. It got to the point that NASA and ESA were re-examining their own concept to launch process, but the recent failures of ISRO and SpaceIL have highlighted the trade off in managing risk and keeping costs down. Like plane crashes, everyone learns something from this.

    I’d like to point out that JAXA, with a comparable budget to ISRO (but a Japanese R&D ecosystem to draw from that dwarfs India’s) has also failed multiple times in the recent past e.g. the Hitomi satellite to name just one. The Chinese first and only attempt to send a Mars orbiter didn’t even leave low earth orbit. No shame. It’s the nature of the game.

    The cool things to take away from Chandrayaan II are that the GSLV Mk III rocket, with its third consecutive successful orbital payload launch is now proven at the highest TRL. It is now a tried and tested medium to heavy payload launch rocket that is comparable to a mid range Arianne rocket (this is seriously impressive shit). There will also be 7 years worth of science from the various instruments on the orbiter that I won’t bore you with here. All in all, not too shabby.

  9. Update: unofficial, but credible accounts suggest the Vikram lander has been imaged in the IR and is intact and in one piece. Former ISRO chief G. Madhavan Nair, who you can be sure has the inside scoop on times now:

    This would imply that the autonomous systems on board did in fact succeed in executing a soft landing — no atmosphere implies no terminal velocity, and so the landing must have been controlled else the lander would have shattered in spite of the moon’s weaker surface gravity (like Beresheet did). Moreover, it landed close to the designated landing zone albeit at the wrong orientation, meaning that the autonomous system on board were probably functioning right till the end. According to Nair, the only challenge now is the tilted orientation of the lander which makes it’s antennae profile trickier to send a signal to from the orbiter. Let’s see how this develops…

    1. It’s not a big deal. When we send some men to moon, we will raise it erect and repair it. Nobody’s gonna steal it.

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