The sun and the moon

The Indian Space Research Organisation's ambitious to-do list for the next five years comprises of 33 satellite missions and 25 lunar vehicle launches, including missions to the sun, the moon and Mars, reflecting its growing confidence — and budget. ISRO has evidently drawn encouragement from the success of its first mission to the moon in 2008-09, Chandrayaan 1. Instruments aboard that probe famously found water molecules on the surface of the moon, and the relatively low cost of the mission was hailed as a marker of Indian ingenuity and technical know-how, in the process delivering an effective rebuke to those who claimed that a developing country had no business financing fanciful space missions.

For the most part, the programme has, since its inception in the 1960s, focused on placing communications, earth-mapping and meteorological satellites in orbit around the planet in keeping with its development agenda. More recently, ISRO appears to have expanded its original mandate to include more commercial and exploratory interests. It entered the lucrative international commercial launch market in 1992, and has launched 29 foreign satellites in the last decade. But its more ambitious agenda to look beyond practical applications and investigate the farther reaches of space has been more controversial. As such, it comes as no surprise that the planned orbital, unmanned missions to the sun and Mars have been criticised.

Scientific research for its own sake must be part of ISRO's mission statement. The space agency's budget, though only 7.5 per cent of NASA's, has grown each year since the early 2000s. With NASA facing budgetary cuts, space research organisations in fast-growing countries like India and China with great power ambitions are looking to pick up some of the slack. It stands to reason that ISRO be encouraged to dream big.

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