Reaching for the Stars book review: A Martian quest

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Published: February 22, 2015 12:14:01 AM

Reaching For The Stars reveals a lot about India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, but fails to answer a few important questions

Reaching for the Stars
Pallava Bagla & Subhadra Menon
Bloomsbury
Pp 257
R899

REACHING FOR the Stars, a book by the husband-wife duo of Pallava Bagla and Subhadra Menon, reveals a lot about India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan, but fails to answer a few important questions.

The book discloses that a proposal for the mission was sent to the government only after the Chinese mission failed in November 2011. The news of its approval by the Cabinet was also kept under wraps, only to be revealed by then prime minister Manmohan Singh in his independence day speech. In fact, former Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chief UR Rao was all for a Mercury mission instead.

However, MOM’s success can be gauged by the fact that Time, an international news weekly, selected it as one of the best 25 scientific innovations of 2014. “Nobody gets Mars right on the first try. The US didn’t, the Russians didn’t, the Europeans didn’t. But on September 24, India did. A technological feat no other Asian nation has yet achieved,” said the magazine.

The book, which gives a vivid behind-the-scenes account of the mission, also talks about previous space missions, including Chandrayaan I. Combining the past, present and the possible future of India’s space programmes, Reaching for the Stars gives a delightful pictorial collection of Isro’s work in space missions.

Isro has played a momentous role in the economic, scientific and social advancements made by India. The hundreds of satellite TV channels we tune into today, our mobile and land phone connections, Internet connectivity, e-governance, e-commerce have all been made possible because of the communication and earth-observing satellites launched by the organisation. Also, the Indian Meteorological Department’s weather and cyclone forecasts are on the dot now, thanks to the collection of satellites owned and operated by Isro.

However, even as Mangalyaan is a landmark event in the history of Indian space science, a question remains unanswered: was it worth taking up a mission like MOM at that juncture?

Isro was carrying its own baggage. Its mission to develop an indigenous cryogenic engine for lifting heavy communication satellites had got stalled mid-way. Chandrayaan-2, which was to be launched in 2012, also got delayed indefinitely. Two successive failures of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles within a short span of three months saw the morale of Isro take a big hit. On the other hand, the UPA government, which was infested with scams galore, needed a turnaround. MOM offered an ideal opportunity for both Isro and the government to change their fortunes.

An entire army of scientists and technologists collaborated to work on the spacecraft. However, even though MOM was put into the Martian orbit in September 2014—almost six months back—it is yet to make any serious observation worth its name.

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