Emily LakdawallaFeb 04, 2008

Lecture by G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of ISRO

My fearless leader Lou Friedman and I just took a break from our work (for Lou, that was a break from phone call after phone call about the NASA budget -- you'll see more on our website about the budget hopefully today or tomorrow) to head over to Caltech to see a talk given by G. Madhavan Nair, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization or ISRO, which oversees ALL of India's non-military space programs, everything from communications and meteorological satellites to launch vehicle development, lunar exploration, and, eventually, human space exploration.

I didn't expect to hear any real news from this talk; my general experience is that the quantity of interesting information you hear from a person is inversely proportional to his or her organizational rank. However, it was significant for the head of a foreign space agency to appear and speak at Caltech. The reason for his visit was because they are apparently having difficulty developing the human resources required for their space program within India, although they have recently started a new institute of space science and technology with the specific goal of training students for future careers in the development of India's aerospace capability. Nair was at Caltech in part to learn how to develop the necessary human capital, and presumably to liaise with them for exchange of students and maybe even professors.

I came away from the talk impressed with the size of ISRO. He opened by saying, "When you were landing men on the Moon, we were just making pencil rockets." Then he went on to say that they now have a budget approaching a billion U.S. dollars a year (that's a lot of money!), and that ISRO employs 16,000 people. They've launched 48 spacecraft, half of them using homegrown launch vehicles. Most of this capability is focused on telecommunications and environmental observations of various kinds, but they are beginning to branch out into planetary science, like with Chandrayaan-1.

It's always difficult to understand why other countries besides your own want to go to space, because they're, well, foreign. It's extremely difficult for me, who grew up in the United States, to understand at an intuitive level the national psyche of Indians (or Japanese, or Russians, or, heck, even the British for that matter). The things we take for granted are not the same things that other cultures take for granted. For the United States as a whole, I think we're in space partially because of the history of the cold war space race, partially for national pride, partially to maintain superiority in engineering fields, and partially for the goals of exploration and discovery. I think that although some Indians seek to explore for the sake of it, from Nair's talk I get the sense that the Indian planetary exploration program cannot be justified to the Indian public on the basis of exploration alone. I think the publicly stated goal has a more practical bent: the future exploitation of resources in space.

Of course Nair had no specifics on which resources, and how they might be exploited, but as one example of this point of view, the Chandrayaan-1 mission was described as something that could map "the Moon's mineral resources." And his discussion of India's future efforts to send humans to space was also couched in terms of requiring human capability to be able to develop off-Earth resources. "Whether you want to look at the Moon, establish lunar colonies, or use the Moon as a stepping stone, humans become important. We can afford to do this; it is within our reach." Interesting.

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