2014, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

An Abstract Ecstasy: Gazing Down from the Mars Orbit

Sankarshan Thakur

New Delhi, Sept 24: In some ways this is the unfolding of an abstract ecstasy. The closest representation we have of the rapture over getting looped into the orbit of Mars may be fictional — Star Trek, Kirk, Spock and Scotty and their Enterprise adventures in the nowhere. That’s where Mars remains located in lay consciousness, somewhere in Nowhere. There’s n/o Rakesh Sharma beaming down on crackly television screens from up there. There’s no opportunity to ask how India looks from space. There’s nobody rehearsed-ready with the cheesy ‘saare jahan se achchha’. Mars is far too distant to afford cognitive vision of the earth, some 660 million kilometres as the orbiter flies. It’s also far too arduous and enigmatic an odyssey to yet put a human through, Mars is where we have long suspected life to exist, even sinister sci-fi fantasy of a kindred, or rival, species.

Mars is not the near neighbourhood Cosmonaut Sharma popped over to for a dekko; it may be the planet next door to us, but we are talking a galactic next door which takes close to a year to approach at hypersonic velocity. Don’t be taken by the bionic tweets that trended all day on the @MarsOrbiter signature, transmitting pert “howdy…I’ll be around” texts to its American predecessor in orbit @MarsCuriosity. That’s just another fetching trick of science, a proxy handle synced with @MarsOrbiter but tweeting from terra firma. In the first six or so hours that it became operational @MarsOrbiter mimicked the speed of its eponymous owner, rocketing from zero to 55,000+ and counting. Last heard, it was breakfasting its battery panels on “Good ol’ sunlight”.

So what does it mean that a 15-kilo projectile embossed with the Tricolour is now describing elliptical rings around Mars, one of only four footprints in that part of the solar system? It’s a first because ISRO was able to plug it in on first attempt, but actually it’s a Fourth — the US, Russia and the European Union are already where we arrived a little past seven this morning, Earth Time. Mars has been exhaustively probed for close to four decades now; the Americans landed the first of their Viking explorers in 1976, and since then the red planet has lain needled like a patient under investigation for symptoms, its surface scrolled and scraped for signs life, water, minerals, gas, something hitherto unknown; its atmosphere bottled and tested for whatever it might offer as clues to the past and pointers to the future; its unexplored acreage mapped and photographed so profusely, Mars volumes are probably pushing Earth catalogues in libraries. So what does it mean to follow where many have gone before? What does it mean to be able to remote manipulate the most minute cogs in a cubiod flying hundreds of millions of miles away when there isn’t enough swiftness with marshalling crude pumps to salvage a drowned city? Srinagar could have done with a few. What does it mean to be able to receive images from far space the world has already seen when we haven’t even begun to map vast swathes on our home patch? The anti-Naxal offensive suffers for lack of the lay of the Abujhmad/Dandakaranya jungles. What may it mean to get a measure of Martian air when we let fester some of the most alarming pollution levels and have half the nation defecating 24/7 in the open? What does it tell us that ISRO scientists can avert the possibility of a far away collision with the tap of a button, but nothing seems to prevent slaughter at level crossings? What does it mean to extol scientific temper to the skies one day and encourage the intemperate irrationality of “love jehad” the other, one a salute to modernity, the other a medieval exhort? We rightfully celebrate cutting-edge sophistication of technology on one half of our television screens, while the other half plays out the raw brutality of a tiger slapping a man dead mid-afternoon in the capital’s zoo, a ghastly fracture between lofty achievement and disarranged fundamentals. Is arriving in the orbit of Mars a little too far to travel to be able to only say “Me Too”?

That said, it’s cynically churlish to knock what’s been achieved between the eminences of ISRO today. It’s to deny the evolved vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, grand architect of our modern temples, and to repudiate the excellence and industry of generations of scientists mentored by a standout gallery — Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U.R. Rao, K. Kasturi Rangan, G. Madhavan Nair and, now, K. Radhakrishnan. It is to be amnesiac on stellar accomplishment that men of science have brought to bear on an undertaking as complex and unwieldy as India , from critical food sufficiency and remarkable upgradation of health standards, to agency on nuclear science for energy and for strategic defence. It is to not comprehend how and why India came to represent global leadership on IT, or what revolutionary changes the information/telecom initiatives wrought on our society and economy post the mid 1980s. It is also, pertinently, to lack perspective on a political discourse that has become the vogue — “nothing happened in India for 60 long years”. The orbiter isn’t of post May 2014 vintage. And it is a successor instrument to those that began to be imagined and crafted several decades ago.

Not all that happens in the rarefied quietude of science laboratories is esoteric indulgence. The many satellites that India has propelled into space daily help forecast weather, track soil and agricultural patterns, organise traffic and foretell routes, facilitate telemedicine and teleeducation, work your ATMs, allow you the great and many splendoured gift of cell telephony. All of it is high achievement harnessed to winching aspiration closer to fulfilment.

The Mars orbiter may be at a remove from the utilitarian, probably India’s first pure science endeavour. Not many applications will flow from it, the experts say, but what it might achieve is to push the frontiers of human knowledge but dropping a probe into the great unknown. Was it not Bertolt Brecht who somewhere said that the only commandment science knows is to contribute to more science? That’s the endeavour the Indian orbiter has now joined with three others in the Mars orbit. Keep tuned to @MarsOrbiter and it will probably help peel some of the abstraction away and bring to us a more tactile sense of why there does exist reason to celebrate. At the moment, it’s on a breakfast break, feeding sunlight to its battery fins.

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