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Updated: November 10, 2013 16:27 IST
AN ARMCHAIR WITH A VIEW

Bold leaps into the unknown

Krish Ashok
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Illustration: Satwik Gade
The Hindu Illustration: Satwik Gade

Watching Mangalyaan’s launch on his mobile phone, Krish Ashok feels ecstatic and declares that errors of commission take us into the future.

There is a category of people who, when served sambar with cabbage, will unleash molecular gastronomy theories about the unsuitability of that combination and the relative superiority of the sambar and aloo fry combination. Let’s call them Ambissadors, a portmanteau of the Tamil word Ambi and an obsolete car that some people still nostalgically insist is the best car for Indian roads. Ambissadors are also statistically likely to be either retired public sector (male) employees or trivia quizzers.

It has been said, despite the delectable offerings in certain shady restaurants in Rajasthan, that the peacock is the national bird of India. Now Ambissadors will tell you that a peacock is nothing more than a cosmetic bird that can barely fly and it is almost the perfect metaphor of the decadent, exotic east. Here’s another example: The Tiger is a magnificent, yet almost extinct national animal, yet again, quite symbolic of India’s past glory, brutally hunted down to the point where it will most likely not get a permanent seat in the UN security council.

In short, Ambissadors, at their worst, tend to suffer from a heroin itch to use their slightly better general knowledge to mildly belittle others’ achievements. But a good number of them are mostly harmless armchair theorists (unlike the author of this article) who fall into the category of men that a great-aunt of mine once described thus: “Just give him the illusion that he is slightly smarter than you and he is a pleasure to live with as a husband.”

A small sub-sect of Ambissadors has also fine-tuned the art of the Fallacy of Relative Privation. In simple terms, it’s dismissing anything you disagree with using the “But there are children starving in Africa” argument. 

This past week, ISRO spent a sixth of the projected budget of a large Sardar Vallabhai Patel statue (or four Shah Rukh movies, if your sense of math works better that way) and launched Mangalyaan in the direction of Mars. On its 485-million-mile journey, it will first encounter, in the Earth’s Exosphere, the price of petrol and about half way to the red planet, the price of onions.

So when our usual crowd of cynics came up with the “Should we really be spending Rs 450 crores on Mangalyaan when we have so many more important problems to solve”, I lost it.

For starters, ISRO’s budget is currently 0.34 per cent of government expenditure. It probably costs less to fund ISRO than provide flashing lights and security for our politicians. On top of that, in the last decade, ISRO’s rockets have been earning the organisation revenue from delivering other countries’ payloads into space; so, for most part, ISRO pays for itself.

To add to this, the satellites we have launched into space have actually made a difference to the poorest of the poor in the country. The imaging satellites have improved our ability to forecast weather and improve agricultural output over the years. In fact, the aperture radar satellites launched last year have improved our ability to detect cyclones much earlier than ever before and exactly how do you think we managed to save all those lives from Phailin? Better Vaastu? No. Better rocket science.

Space exploration is, in the absolute truest sense of the word, the pinnacle of the human spirit. It brings together scientists from a wide array of disciplines to build machines that lift off from the shackles of gravity and head into the awesome expanse of the cosmos.

To argue that space exploration comes at the cost of alleviating poverty and starvation is like arguing that the logically correct way to play a game of cricket is to bowl into the rough outside leg stump and place all fielders on the on-side. I’d like to believe that mankind is driven by errors of commission rather than errors of omission. We’d rather, at least occasionally, stupidly and boldly jump into the unknown than regularly wash our clothes over the weekend. Time and again, it’s these bold leaps into the seemingly impossible and impractically expensive that takes us into the future.

None of this means that we should forget about poverty and starvation. I could, in equal measure, wear the Ambissador hat and argue that those who argue against space exploration shouldn’t be celebrating Sachin Tendulkar either. After all, can our country afford an expensive leisure like the gentleman’s game?

This isn’t about patriotism either. Nation states are historically transient entities. Mangalyaan is an achievement of engineering and human ingenuity. It’s the kind of spirit that got humans out of trees and into luxury German automobiles. We can blame those who are not doing enough to alleviate poverty, but let’s celebrate this stunning achievement for what it is.

Thirty years ago, I saw Rakesh Sharma hitch a ride on the Soviet Soyuz T-11 to spend eight days in space, in low earth orbit (that’s less than 2000 km from the surface of the earth) and, on November 5, 2013, I saw India launch Mangalyaan using its own PSLV rocket 485 million miles towards Mars, and I saw this live on my phone over a 3G connection. I don’t know about you, but I feel awesome.

krishashok@ gmail.com

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