When I started writing this online column last month with an awesome vision of the Internet's apparently infinite dimensions, I knew I would find it necessary to follow it up with some reflections on the impact of modern science and technology on individuals and society. And I now realize it will have to be a very long series of essays, because the theme is extremely complex and bristles with so many intricate aspects. But rather than risking mental fatigue by considering the same issue week after week, let us spread out the core series a little, and take up some other lighter topics in the intervals!
In the context of the steady scientific progress made by India during the 20th century, I had made the following comment in the preceding essay (Psychology Of Turbulence, October 13): ".... And in the frenzied field of the ongoing information revolution today, India seems to be running a neck-to-neck race with the most advanced countries of the world".
Well, India today seems to be among the front-runners in other scientific fields also, like space exploration, for instance! Its very first moon mission, which seemed to have been on the brink of failure last year, actually turned out to be a great success.
I am, of course, referring to the unmanned lunar vehicle Chandrayaan-1, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). which carried some instruments developed in India, and also some others sponsored by NASA in America, ESA (European Space Agency), and BAA (Bulgarian Aerospace Agency).
Chandrayaan was launched into lunar orbit in October 2008, and was expected to remain there for a couple of years. But within a few months, there was serious malfunction of some vital systems (including solar panels and star sensors which were essential for power supply and direction-finding); and there were no radio signals from August 29, 2009 due to failure of electronic components. Meanwhile, the vessel had gone round the moon more than 3,000 times, undertaken various useful experiments, and transmitted more than 70,000 images to the earth, some of them with very fine resolution upto five metres.
Back home, in India, there was great disappointment as the mission was declared closed prematurely. But although there was some resentment that ISRO hadn't fully disclosed the troubles as they arose, by and large there was no hostile criticism of ISRO's efforts, as there was a general awareness of the immensity of the venture and the equal chances of success and failure.
In an editorial rather emotionally titled Adieu, Chandrayaan-1, India's most responsible newspaper The Hindu made a rational assessment on August 31: ".... Yet these problems make what has been achieved all the more remarkble. It is a tribute to ISRO’s mission management team that they could find ways to keep the spacecraft and its instruments operational for so long.... In the months and years ahead, data from the Indian probe will help scientists better understand the Moon’s origin and evolution, its mineral composition, and whether water might lie trapped in its permanently shadowed polar craters".
And sure enough, the prediction came true very soon, perhaps much sooner than even The Hindu had expected! For within a few weeks, towards the end of September 2009, the prestigious international magazine Science reported that NASA's instrument M3 (moon mineralogy mapper) had discovered the presence of water molecules on the moon.
Moreover, following extensive analysis of the data collected, it was reported in an international science congress in March 2010 that NASA's Mini-Sar (miniature synthetic aperture radar) had found extensive masses of ice in several huge polar craters with diameters ranging from two to fifteen kilometres.
What this meant, of course, was that there's a precious natural resource on the moon for the benefit of manned space missions, in the vital forms of drinking water (H2O), breathing air (oxygen), and rocket fuel (hydrogen). As a delighted Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, declared: "Now we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible.... The result.... seen in the last few months are totally revolutionizing our view of the Moon."
Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, NASA!