Friday, January 12, 2007

PSLV launch: why we need more such symbols

The recent PSLV launch which put four satellites into space is a great achievement in the list of many other achievements from ISRO. When it came up on the news I was quite happy. In this news item, the director of ISRO was introducing the whole team one by one. It was a nice occasion. I can imagine each of them brimming with pride. [I would have loved it if the camera was focused on each of those individuals while the introductions were made. Instead, the camera was just glued to the director who was making the introductions.]

The first PSLV launch went unsuccessful. This was long ago, in 1993. I was talking to some educated people and they were criticizing our initiatives to send rockets into space when our poor do not even have food. In India, there is this notion that we should NOT spend money on ‘extravagant’ things till our poor get food. And to satisfy this notion, we did not take up any major scale infrastructure projects in the last few decades. Whatever was done, it was done during Nehru times. After that, building a dam is considered against-poor, building roads is considered against-poor, sending a rocket into space is also considered against-poor.

I want us, and especially the kids, to celebrate the grand achievements such as this PSLV launch. I want the kids to be taught different stages of the rocket, and what happens during each stage. I want them to see this achievement in awe and wonder, and say to themselves- 'I want to be one of those rocket engineers when I grow up'.

Each time a Tejas (LCA) aircraft flies by in Bangalore, close to where I work, I can’t help but admire it, and be envious of the scientists and engineers who have made it happen. Yes, I know that the LCA project is painfully slow. I would have loved it if they had done it earlier. But at least, the planes have started to fly!

Each time I see a BEML truck on the road, I take few moments to look at it. I am filled with pride each time those big wheels are rolling along on the road. When I look at such engineering achievements, I want to be able to do it! I want to be able to build planes one day, make trucks one day. I look forward to doing something more in life than what I am doing currently. We have that spirit in each of us- we just need that little boost, that little dose of encouragement, that little extra dose of aggressiveness, that little dose of being able to finish what we set out to do. We need that extra dose of maturity to handle risks, criticisms, and discouragements. Such achievements provide us with these extra doses of that spirit.

India needs more such achievements. I call them symbols. We all need symbols. If we are making progress marginally, from 5.0% increase in economy per year to 8.0% increase in economy per year, we can’t sense the growth. We don’t know if we are improving, we can only believe the business news channels to get that comfort. We have a need to associate a symbol to our achievements. We all need some icons and symbols to say to ourselves- ‘Yes, I am proud of that’. That’s why sports are so important to a civilization. We just can’t tell ourselves, ‘let’s ban sports, because it is sucking up money, while our poor do not have food’. Even the poor people of India revel in the victories of India in the cricket game. We all need such wins. Achievements and victories boosts our morale, makes us confident, and give us inspiration to work, for something better, something more than ourselves.

The PSLV launches, the Chandrayan Mission to moon, etc, are symbols according to me. They tell us that we have something to be proud of in the contemporary history- without having to search our ancient texts to seek the moments of glory in a remote past.

All those detractors who say the money could be well spent should just look at the kinds of funds that are returned by many government agencies every year because they were unspent. Don’t ever tell me that India does not have money. It has loads of money. And if it needs more money for such projects, there are so many out there in the world who are willing to invest in us.

In addition to the real benefits these rocket launches provide, they give us these symbols- of hope, of achievement, and of success. We all need those symbols. If the nation can generate that hope, desire and ambition in its youth, the price we pay for these launches is worth it!


  1. Dear Sujai, Very good post! I was just about to talk to you regarding the PSLV success.One of our college junior used to work in ISRO and he told me about how some people in ISRO are passionate about their work.In fact in 1970s they used to work in a 'start-up' mode sacrificing food, sleep because of which we are able to build such excellent things. This indeed gives a great positive note to all of us. I would like to quote a poem by from Mahakavi Bharathiyar,A revolutionary poet lived in Tamilnadu during our independence struggle: "VAANI ALAPPOM KADAL MEENAI EDUPPOM CHANDIRA MANDALATHAI KANDU THELIVOM"

    Meaning: Let us go and measure the sky, get the fish from deepest sea, let us get into moon and understand more things.

    - Jayakumar

  2. After seeing what we have done to or own planet, my first question would be to ask, are we responsible enough to take on space exploration on a much bigger scale. For me, news on space travel and militarization of space is very disturbing. We have already started littering it with unused satellite parts (debris???), and other abondoned equipment, and I just see these problems exacerbating in the future.

    The NASA mission has shifted priorities from reasearch and gaining knowledge for the universe (which is good for the earth, if carried out in an ethical way ) to the more glamorous, and costly... manned space flight, which will eventually lead to mass space travel, space properties and then space wars!! This vision is very disturbing, since all other countries are going to follow the United States, in this mission!

    I am not an opponent of science but
    I like the sky, the way it is, I like seeing the stars and the planets and the meteor showers.... the way they are, and dreaming about mans relation to the universe. A clear night hypnotises me!! And I would hate to see more rockets flying around, polluting the already polluted sky! Lets first try and make this world more peaceful........ Lets first manage our own planet and make it a more sustainable and livable world.

  3. blue dot green:
    You ask very relevant questions. Are we responsible as a species? Looking at our history, it doesn't look like that. Looking at how we treat our environment and this planet, one can easily conclude that we are a greedy species. We have this amazing propensity to affect our environs more adversely than any species on this planet.

    Given the nature of humans, should we explore the space?

    That is a tough question to answer. Though we seem to have a notion of what we are capable of, we still do not seem to restrain ourselves. And it looks like we can ever restrain ourselves from exploring further. This innate ability to explore further has brought both progress and as well destruction.

    Instead of stopping such exploration, all we can do is regulate it. I agree with you that, this freedom to explore has to come with a certain sense of responsibility- to clear what you throw! :)

  4. Correction in the above comment:
    And it looks like we can ever restrain ourselves from...

    Should read as:

    And it looks like we can never restrain ourselves from...

  5. Hello Sujai,

    It was good reading your post and for once it was again really a topic close to my heart. Let me give a small intro as to who I am and how I am related to ISRO. I was brought up in Sriharikota for 22 Years of my life, some thing I am really proud of, and which I consider a privilege. My dad and his 3 other brothers were directly involved in ISRO each working in ISAC ( B'lore ) , SDSC (Harikota) and NRSA (Hyderabad). My dad was involved in the Solid Stages of PSLV and GSLV (this stage is considered the work horse of ISRO ) , one of his brothers had worked closely with Dr. Kalam in the earlier stages of ISRO'S development , another is a expert in Satellite Imagery and the last one an administrator. To get back to Sriharikota, work there and live in the same apartment that I lived as a kid is still my dream and some thing I will do for sure. By the way I am getting my PhD in some thing that is not entirely ISRO stuff but has very good implications to our future work ( please pardon my “our” , ISRO is some thing I have always been a part of , am now and will be. ). So in some sense ISRO is the blood and soul of My family. People in ISRO are one hell of folks. They are truly determined and very sincere folks. Highly self motivated people I should say. I am not telling this coz a large part of my family was and is involved in it till date. They are paid not much ( one has to accept this , yes I remember so many of my buddies who got out of their UG and got paid and took home more money in their first month than their fathers did after 30 years of service in ISRO ). In this age where money is every thing ( at least thats the general perception, I believe in the method and satisfaction more than the result ) , each of these highly capable people who could churn out at least 10 times what they earn ( yes, there are just a handful of these people in this world, not every one has the exposure to the technologies and abilities they have) at ISRO are still there doing some thing distinct for the country, when the Youth out of IIT's and other Tech Institutes wants to go westward looking for more money ( read green) , now thats a pity. Yes we had lots of goodies too, free education in KV , good medical facilities and Housing for a nominal rent. In these folks , who mostly had a Bsc- Msc degree , may be a few B.E/ Btech and just a handful of PhDs I did see some thing really great. Folks who is some sense conquered more that they ever did learn in school. I dont have the facts and figures, and I know talking without them is baseless , but as some one who has seen many of these folks every single day of his life till date, believe me, every Indian needs to learn some thing or other from these guys, they need to be celebrated and learn t from. Not because, they are highly educated people ( most of them have lower collegiate degree than most youngsters do these days , so what did they have that they do these amazing things, mind you shoe string budgets ?), talented folks, experts in fields which very few in the world are, or slog for not great salaries, but coz these folks believed in them , in their peers, in their subordinates and in their bosses, coz they they did and are doing some thing not every one in the world does. Every India has to be thought about these rockets, has to be made passionate about these things that fly, where there is no second chance, where as Dr. Perumal once noted “space is the most unforgiving of wives” , where a few billion components have to work in tandem and in perfection, where no amount of simulation can predict the reality, where one cannot test the systems without fying them and which is only the launch (think of building a car , been able to simulate much of the stuff, may be start the engine and see it running, test the gears separately, but expecting to run it the first time through a Grand-prix track ( mind you that slower, may be 400Km/h and not 7.8 Km/s , where a pencil would break if not aerodynamically structured perfectly) and win that too ), above all there is this 20 min launch sequence that can be real nail biting. ( I have witnessed so very many of these both successes and the failures , particularly the 1993 PSLV failure, I remember the atmosphere in the Island that day. These guys were devastated, and the same when a GSLV D1 was successfully launched the in less than a month after refitting a new Liquid strap-on after being halted 1.4 sec before liftoff (now thats like holding off your car in 0.0001 sec before it would blowup. Now thats just a comparison, In the sense its as difficult to do as that) , the island was so very colorful that day.) There is a lot to learn from these folks and reasons be one among them and I wish every youngster wishes to be one of them in India. Over the years I have seen, learn t and experienced many of these amazing technologies, designs and marvels these people have created, including the amazing pictures from the IRS satellites, some which I have seen and cannot talk about, some which are celebrated by Space Imaging along with the IKONOS images and last but not the least, every single time I make a call from My cell or the land line, I for a second think about these folks, who have made these all possible, simple things that we have taken for granted, we owe a thanks and a appreciation to them and also that has to bring an urge to do some thing that interesting to the country. ISRO folks I am proud of You, I know how you do stuff, I wouldn't want reasoning from you or convincing statements to show that you are great folks, I know as I have probably walked talked played fought discussed and last but not least brought into this world and ve been made a fine man I am today by one of You.



  6. Sujai,

    Good ideas. I'm not against well-thought out development that takes interests of all in account and not just the urban well-off, but I don't think development-at-any-cost-to-match-the-West is the best for any nation (which from your post seems to be your view). In a democracy, we have to listen to all voices, unlike in China where you would be shot for making a peep.

    A self-sufficient village where electricity needs are supplied by solar panels* & water needs are satisfied by viable, practical and less eco damaging means than a huge dam can equally be symbols for India, as can be a successful PSLV launch and space exploration. I'm not denying that there are trade-offs, but there's not enough discussion of those and who is affected. Decisions should be made with all parties involved, and grievances if any should be addressed. You seem to assume that the government is free of any corruption and that all their decisions regarding Sardar Sarovar Dam were fair and unbiased. You should know better.

    You see Medha Patkar and her protests as blackmail, I see them as democracy in action. Would you have preferred that she and others strap bombs on their bodies and blow up innocents to register their protests and grievances?

    And, a satellite that predicts storms, rainfall etc. can also benefit the poor (farmers). So, I don't think that it's an either-satellite/or-poor situation. :)

    * Yes, it can be done. I know of houses in Maine that supply heat, hot water, electricity and also generate extra that goes back to the utility company. Most parts of India get much, much more sunlight than Maine which is also much colder.

  7. Amit:
    but I don't think development-at-any-cost-to-match-the-West is the best for any nation (which from your post seems to be your view).

    I am not sure why I you think that I support development-at-any-cost-to-match-the-West.

    I can't help you there if you are wired that way.

    You are entitled to your perceptions and opinions- but that that doesn't mean they are right.

  8. Amit:
    Yes, it can be done. I know of houses in Maine that supply heat, hot water, electricity and also generate extra that goes back to the utility company. Most parts of India get much, much more sunlight than Maine which is also much colder.

    Keep dreaming.

    We have solar panels on top of our apartment building. But we never seem to use it as the only source for heating our waters. Practical things are so far off from theoretical stuff.

    Technology can do lot of stuff, but it all comes down to 'are you gonna pay that much to get that service?'

  9. Sujai, your comments in italics.

    Keep dreaming.

    I will. Your occupation says the same. :)

    We have solar panels on top of our apartment building. But we never seem to use it as the only source for heating our waters. Practical things are so far off from theoretical stuff.

    The issue with opinions is that they are not always based on facts. I just mentioned a practical example (house in Maine:, and you dismiss it because it does not fit in with your current opinion. I can't really argue with that. You know what they say about horses and water. :)

    Here are two links I found:

    And here's another practical example in AP:

    India receives solar energy equivalent to over 5000 trillion kWh/year, which is far more than the total energy consumption of the country.

    The issue with solar heaters on your building - I'll leave that for you to investigate. You seem to be well-traveled and educated, so can figure it out once you get past your dismissive attitude towards it.

    Technology can do lot of stuff, but it all comes down to 'are you gonna pay that much to get that service?'

    Well, it's refreshing that you at least are open to the idea that solar panels can do stuff. :)

    Same issue with any new technology (though solar panels are not new - only if governments had embraced it earlier). As more people start using it and governments promote it, production costs go down. The new iPhone is $500 right now. Two years from today, it'll probably be selling at a lot less than that. Same with solar panels, which by the way, have less of a negative environmental impact than a huge dam, but they probably won't offer that much opportunity for corruption to government officials and builders as huge dams do. Oh I forgot, you only believe in things that are already in the mainstream. ;)

    And, you'd rather have poor people's livelihood disrupted because you (urban dweller) want more electricity, but are crying about costs of solar panels? Sacrifice goes both ways.

    I'm sure you'll start changing your tune fast once Western countries start singing about the benefits of solar power ( But if Indians like Vandana Shiva or Medha Patkar say the same thing now about renewable energy, you reject them (and not their arguments) as nuisance. And therein lies the irony of educated Indians - looking to the West for approval and emulating it to prove something. The wounds of 100s of years of British cultural imperialism don't really heal in 60 years.

    It has been nice discussing issues with you. Our conversations come to an end as I probably have nothing more to add. Good luck to you and all the best.


  10. Amit:
    Sorry. I have to dismiss your argument. You seem to be an arm-chair expert. This is the same problem which I see with many Indians who are not living in India. They suddenly lose touch with reality.

    You have no idea how and where solar energy works. Your knowledge comes from websites. Sorry – that your knowledge and exposure is limited.

    Have you ever really worked or seen solar panels in action (except from readings that you found online)?

    Do you know how much it costs to store the energy to be used at nights when sun is not there? And do you know much it costs to maintain the supply when the sun doesn't shine (such as cloudy days or rainy days)?

    We use solar panels to power our base stations. The only guys who can afford it are big telecom operators and they do that only when they see it will be a viable deployment - like in Middle East, etc, who have high paying customers.

    Even the ones that are used in rural India, they use it during power cuts as a backup or secondary source.

    What happens to those regions where there is no primary source itself?

    Good luck with your dreaming!

  11. Sujai, this is why I want more PSLV or GSLV or for that matter now Mars mission launches, failed or successful:

  12. Recent success of ISRO's Mars Orbiter is absolutely great news!


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