A few years ago, I attended a talk at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore given by Mylswamy Annadurai, the Project Director of the first Indian space probe to the Moon.
At the end, a foreign scientist asked why a country with endemic poverty had chosen to spend its resources on an ambitious space exploration program. Dr. Annadurai answered that the cost (estimated ₹3.86 billion or US$57 million) of this mission was insufficient to even feed the people of India for one day. More than a vanity project, the aim of the mission was to inspire Indian youth to pursue science and technology within the country.
I remember thinking that the figure he quoted was less than half of what a North Indian state’s Chief Minister was supposed to have spent on a statue erecting spree.
Such questions have plagued the space program since it’s inception. The father of the Indian space program Vikram Sarabhai once said in its early days,
We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or that planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.
The early days were indeed frugal.
While India has yet to achieve manned space flight, it has started exploring both the Moon and Mars. The question of utility continues to come up again and again. Recently BBC radio did a 3 part documentary on science and technology in Africa. The presenters repeatedly questioned the use of African nations investing in fundamental research or advanced technology as opposed to “relevant” technology.
From a utilitarian point of view, it is hard to defend a space program. It is costly, resource intensive and yields uncertain results. For a poor country, it makes much more sense to simply pay for the services it needs rather than building indigenous capabilities.
But man does not live simply on economic utility. My grandfather remembered an incident soon after independence, the government set up a large fertilizer plant. By world standards, it was inefficient and costly, it probably never operated beyond 30% of it’s supposed capacity. But the very idea that such a thing could be done in India had a powerful effect on his generation. It gave one great answer, India was not a colony, Indians could change the fate of their nation.
Art, philosophy, religion and science are not the playthings of prosperity, they result from a universal yearning to reach beyond the daily existence , to attain goals greater than ourselves. Even in the poorest of villages, people find time to ponder on questions like why am I here? What is my purpose in life? What will be left when I die?
In his documentary Nero’s Guests, P. Sainath interviewed the family of farmer who had committed suicide because he had been unable to pay mounting debts. His daughter produced a small notebook where he used to write. In his rustic tongue he had penned vivid images of his suffering and his dreams.
It is tempting to think what would have happened if the Moon mission’s funds could have been used to save this man’s life. Just as it is tempting to think what would have happened if everyone in the world donated 10% of their income to charity or gave away the money they would spend on entertainment or any other such facetious comparison. I do not claim that to spend on inessentials while people starve is moral, but it is human (that most abused of words).
Our dreams are important. They drive and direct us. To foster them is to preserve a part of our hope and humanity.