Indian Space Research Organization/AP
India's maiden lunar mission Chandrayaan-1, or Moon Craft in ancient Sanskrit, launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, in October 2008.
India's maiden lunar mission Chandrayaan-1, or Moon Craft in ancient Sanskrit, launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, in October 2008. Indian Space Research Organization/AP
India launched its first moon mission last October amid a great gust of patriotic excitement about securing membership in the world's tiny lunar explorers' club — which includes its regional rival, China.
The unmanned Chandrayaan-1 set off to orbit the moon and map its surface in unprecedented 3-D detail. On board are payloads from NASA, the European Union and Bulgaria — including instruments that detect water and minerals.
The Indian Space Research Organization recently revealed that the craft has developed technical problems. It overheated, so in May it was moved to a new orbit, 100 kilometers farther from the moon.
Within the past month, a steering sensor failed, threatening the entire mission. Although a fix has been found, the two-year, $83 million mission may now have to be cut short.
However, these glitches are unlikely to dent the ambitions of India's space scientists, who have already declared the Chandrayaan-1 mission a success.
Space Technology As Poverty Fix
This is all a far cry from the modest space program launched by India in the late 1960s, when one of the country's founding fathers' Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister. Back then, it set out to develop technology — particularly satellites — that would assist India's economic development. There were no plans to go to the moon.
"From the beginning, the Indian government decided that it would use space as a means of delivering high technology to alleviate poverty," said Pallava Bagla, co-author of Destination Moon, a book about the Chandrayaan mission.
He believes the program has done this remarkably well.
"Space applications have always been India's forte, to use satellites to search for water, to map resources, to look for minerals, to look for places where there are forests or how much they are degrading," Bagla said.
That includes using satellite technology to monitor the monsoon, which each year is a vital factor in determining the health of India's huge agricultural economy.
'Magnificent' Rate Of Return
This year, the Indian government has allocated just over $1 billion for its space program, a fraction of NASA's budget. Some of its critics contend that this money would be better spent on the hundreds of millions of Indians who still live in profound poverty. But officials argue that the program is a good investment.
"Some time back, they made an estimation that for every rupee spent, the Indian space agency has given back to the country something like two or 2.5 times that," Bagla said. "A rate of return of that order is magnificent."
India's space scientists have many plans in the pipeline. They are working on Chandrayaan-2, another unmanned lunar mission that will place a motorized roving craft on the moon's surface to collect dust and rock samples.
They also want to send missions to study the sun and Mars, and hope eventually to send an Indian astronaut to the Moon.
'A Matter Of ... Flying Your Flag'
Bagla believes that — although Indian scientists deny this — rivalry with China is playing a role.
"Nothing in space is merely about poverty. There is national prestige," he said. "Both countries have a billion-plus population; both countries are vying for a position of regional supremacy in the world."
The prospect of landing an Indian on the moon is causing controversy in Indian scientific circles.
Kiran Karnik worked with India's space program for 20 years.
"Some of us are certainly uneasy as to where that takes you," he said. "Getting more science is fine, but ... most people feel that human presence on the moon doesn't really contribute to getting more data from there. It is more a matter of prestige and flying your flag, both literally and metaphorically. And it costs a huge amount of money."