A couple of articles on India's Mars Orbiter Mission were published on the news website The Week yesterday, and they're much more in-depth and insightful than the norm. The best is a feature story called Red Hot, by Rekha Dixit, who was privileged to tour the clean room where the orbiter is being assembled. For me, the most interesting part of the article is her interview of Dipankar Banerji, a mission outsider who speaks of its significance to India:
Although the Indian space establishment rules out a space race, MOM is certainly at a tangent from the standard Indian portfolio of space probes that are application-based. “Yes, this is a test of our technological prowess and endurance,” says Dipankar Banerji, associate professor at Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore.
He says that there is always a debate between investing in applied and pure science, but every once in a while countries need to invest in big missions. “It is true that MOM is more of a prestige issue, a platform to show the international community our indigenous technological capability. I do not, however, think it can be called a luxury or indulgence,” says Banerji. “Peer recognition is very important. While there is a high rate of failure in inter-planetary expeditions, ISRO has a very reliable launch vehicle, the PSLV. So they have reason to be confident on that front.”
It is accompanied by a shorter one containing photos of three of the instruments on test benches: the Mars colour camera, the methane sensor, and the lyman alpha photometer. That article also has the following to say about the name of the Mars Orbiter Mission: "After Chandrayaan, the natural name for the Mars mission was Mangalyaan. That is how it was referred to in the media, too. ISRO, however, is touchy about this. 'It was always called the Mars Orbiter Mission. All government fund sanction has been to the project under this name,' said a statement released by ISRO."
But this is my favorite part of the supplementary article:
Superstition among space scientists and astronauts is rampant. While in NASA, scientists popped lucky peanuts while tracking crucial moments in the journey of their Mars probe, Curiosity, the Russians have fine-tuned an elaborate system of ceremonies for every launch. Before a launch, the mission's project director rubs the space vehicle with a lucky coin. Cosmonauts plant a tree in the cosmonaut gallery at Baikonur. Midway towards the launch, they get off the bus that is taking them and urinate on the tyre.
At Byalalu, the smart data collection, retrieval and processing centre has a series of safety mechanisms and back up systems to keep data safe. Every machine in this room is daubed with a tilak of kumkum and turmeric. "It's harmless. And the great outside is so unexplored, it doesn't do any damage to propitiate the gods, does it?" asks a scientist.
The fact that superstition and observances of "lucky" rituals are so common among spacecraft engineers, scientists, and astronauts is, to me, a wonderful expression of humans' essentially irrational nature. It seems to me the Mars Orbiter Mission can't possibly leave its clean room without somebody performing a puja ceremony and daubing a tilak somewhere, to give it an auspicious start to its journey! I wonder what space-safe compound one uses to dot a tilak on a spacecraft....