India Debates Nation's Role In Space

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Indians are divided over their nation's first space mission, an unmanned lunar probe launched early Wednesday. Critics say the moon mission is a waste of money in a country where so many are impoverished. Others see space as a path to competing in a high-tech world.


India has had a space program since the 1960s. Today it took a giant step forward if not for mankind, certainly for the country. This morning, India launched its first ever mission to the moon - an unmanned mission. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, it's a journey with scientific and political implications.

(Soundbite of space mission launch crew)

Unidentified Man #1: Three, two, one, zero, plus one, plus two, plus three…

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, the vehicle has lifted off.

Unidentified Man #3: Vehicle has lifted off.

PHILIP REEVES: It was perfect liftoff.

Unidentified Man: Ah, you can see the vehicle soaring high into the sky majestically.

REEVES: Shortly after dawn, the Chandrayaan-1 soared upwards from India's southeastern coast and set off through thick clouds to join Asia's space race.

Unidentified Man: And it's very beautiful and exciting - very good (unintelligible). Once again, we have achieved a perfect launch.

REEVES: On the ground at mission control, there was a loud applause. Madhavan Nair heads the Indian Space Research Organization leading the mission.

Mr. MADHAVAN NAIR (Chairman, Indian Space Research Organization): It's a historic moment as far as India is concerned. We have started our journey to the moon. And the first leg of the journey has gone perfectly well.

REEVES: The unmanned space craft will go into orbit around the moon and map its surface in detail. On board, it's carrying Indian, American and European equipment. It's looking for minerals and water and a rare isotope possibly important in producing energy. Eventually it will send out a small probe that will land on the moon, conduct experiments and drop off an Indian flag. India's moving to catch up with its more powerful regional rival, China, which last month conducted its first space walk. Both China and Japan last year launched moon missions. After today's launch, India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh who's in Japan, paid tribute to his scientists.

Prime Minister MANMOHAN SINGH (India): The mission will put India in a very small group of six countries which have thus far sent space missions to the moon. Our scientific community has once again done the country proud.

REEVES: This is not just about science or space commerce. India's asserting its status as a rising global player. For the Indian government, the mission come at a sensitive period. There's to be a general election before the end of next spring. Some important regional elections are looming. The launch is a useful distraction. These aren't easy times in India. There have been bombings and communal violence. The credit crunch is taking the heat out of India's booming economy. Stocks have been falling sharply. On the streets of the capital, New Delhi, it wasn't hard to find Indians delighted by the moon mission. This is Pratik Biswas(ph).

Mr. PRATIK BISWAS(ph) (Indian Respondent): Yeah, it's a great achievement you see. After all, India's one of the very few countries who has enabled to do so. We have been able to achieve something which we never expected ten years back even.

REEVES: Raku Vyas(ph) believes India should not be spending money going to the moon. After all, hundreds of millions of its people still live in abject poverty.

Mr. RAKU VYAS(ph) (Indian Respondent): It's a total waste if the rocket - there's many villages you can find in India that there's no road, no drinking water and no electricity there you know. So this is all a waste, what they're doing here.

REEVES: But those Indians who applaud the moon mission often argue their country's poverty is caused by corruption and bad governance, not a lack of national wealth. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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