Technology, History, and Travel

Category: Space

NASA poster of the Apollo moon missions

Apollo 11 and the past of space travel

Fifty years ago this month, men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. They came in peace for all mankind.

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 has gotten a lot of publicity, more than I remember the thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries getting. There seem to be two dominant ways that companies and institutions are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. One is marketing collectibles. Estes, the model rocket manufacturer, has reissued classic kits of rockets from Mercury to Apollo. LEGO has released large and detailed sets of the Saturn V and Lunar Module.

The other dominant way to commemorate Apollo 11 has been to use the anniversary as an occasion to discuss the future of space travel. The cover of National Geographic this month declares, “A new era of space travel is here,” and USA Today last week carried the headline: “Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 made the world a bigger place. NASA is ready to go back.”

In some respects, this preoccupation with the future is understandable because space travel has long been imagined as futuristic. Spaceflight was envisioned in science fiction long before it became a reality. Even after people had begun to fly into space, true believers in space travel continued to dream big and kept claiming that the next big thing was just around the corner: inexpensive access to low Earth orbit with reusable spaceplanes, permanent moon bases, and nuclear rockets flying to Mars and beyond.

None of these things have come to pass. The Space Shuttle, though reusable, proved to be expensive to maintain and risky to fly. Moon bases have never been built, and nuclear rocket propulsion remains science fiction. (In a May 25, 1961 speech, just after famously calling for the United States to commit to a moon landing by the end of the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy exhorted Congress to appropriate funds to accelerate the development of the ROVER nuclear rocket—but who remembers that?)

There is a real irony about the future-looking coverage of the moon landing anniversary: space travel belongs to the past as much as to the future. Both National Geographic and USA Today put photos of the Apollo program on their covers, to introduce their articles about the future of space travel. The graphic designers at National Geographic even went so far as to frame the Apollo 8 earthrise photo they used with film sprocket holes—further emphasizing Apollo program’s belonging to the past, because the vast majority of photography in the 2010s is shot digitally rather than on film.

It was literally a half-century ago that men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. We can certainly look forward to further human exploits in space (although considering that we still have no moonbases and nuclear rockets, I won’t hold my breath). But an imaginary future in space should not distract us from the real past. Apollo 11 flew a long time ago, taking off from and landing on a world that was very different than it is today.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Bharat ke Mangal ki Yatra (India’s Mars Journey)

On the morning of September 24, 2014 (India time), the Mangalyaan-1 space probe entered into orbit of Mars. Mangalyaan-1 was designed and built in India, financed by Indian taxpayers, and launched on an Indian PSLV rocket from Shriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Over the course of a month, the probe orbited the Earth, progressively climbing to higher orbits before using Earth’s gravity to slingshot it toward Mars. When Mangalyaan finally reached Mars almost eleven months later, it became the first probe built in Asia to reach the Red Planet. This was also the first time that any nation successfully sent a probe to Mars on their first attempt.

The Indian media was abuzz over this distinctive national accomplishment. Commentators praised the engineers and scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for reaching Mars cheaply and efficiently, but still flawlessly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed the goings-on at mission control in Bangalore, and then delivered a televised speech to a crowd of ISRO engineers. His speech, delivered partly in English and partly in Hindi, represents the rhetoric surrounding Mangalyaan’s successful arrival at Mars (sorry, no subtitles):

PM Modi emphasized that the probe was built “indigenously and upon Indian effort, spreading from Bangalore to Bhubaneshwar, and Faridabad to Rajkot”—for less than the cost of a Hollywood movie. The rhetoric of indigeneity and technological self-reliance is more than fifty years old. It was first articulated in the Third Five-Year Plan (issued in 1961), which stated that “India’s economy must not only expand rapidly, but must, at the same time, become self-reliant and self-generating.”

This proved to be an elusive goal. Certain industries became fully indigenous, but other remained out of India’s grasp. India’s military-industrial complex has so far failed to satisfy the nation’s needs, and India became, and remains, the world’s largest arms importer. Where India has succeeded in indigenization is in high-tech, big-science fields. India makes its own nuclear reactors and space probes, but still has to import more mundane equipment such as passenger jets.

Itty Abraham argues in The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb that when India became a nuclear power in 1974, it was too late to matter.1 In other words, by 1974 the ability to detonate a nuclear warhead no longer entitled a nation to membership in the elite club of the most technologically-sophisticated nations. Sadly, this seems to be the case for India’s space accomplishments as well. In his speech at ISRO, PM Modi declared, “With this particular success, ISRO joins an elite group of only three other agencies worldwide to have successfully reached the Red Planet.” True as this may be, the world seems not to have taken much notice. Although the Indian media was thrilled by Mangalyaan’s arrival at Mars, the American media, at least, has remained unmoved. Mangalyaan was not even mentioned in today’s issue of the New York Times.

  1. Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy, and the Postcolonial State (London: Zed Books, 1998), 166. []

India’s launch into space activity

On the evening of November 21, 1963, a two-stage Nike-Apache rocket shot skyward from Thumba, a spot on the Malabar Coast of southern India. The rocket carried a sodium-vapor experiment that produced a cloud as the rocket ascended. The zigzag shape of the cloud indicated the prevailing winds at different altitudes. Observers at stations as far as 250 km (155 mi) away reported spotting the cloud with the naked eye.1

It was the first launch of a research rocket in India—a nation that would go on to develop its own indigenous satellite launchers. But in 1963, India still had the better part of two decades to go before its first successful satellite launch with the SLV-3 booster. India’s first research rocket launch was a cooperative effort with the United States and France. The American space agency NASA provided the Nike-Apache rocket, which was based on the first stage of a retired surface-to-air missile. France’s CNES provided the sodium-vapor experiment. As Homi Bhabha, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, remarked after the launch, “The NASA has launched us into space activity. We hope this is the beginning of increasing and continuing cooperation between India and the US.”2

As part of the sounding rocket program, NASA brought a small team of Indian scientists and engineers to the United States for training at the agency’s Langley, Goddard, and Wallops Island facilities. One of the men on this team was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who would gain distinction from his later work on Indian space launchers and missiles, then cap off his career with a term as President of India. At NASA, the team received basic technical training for assembling imported rockets, launching, tracking, and data acquisition. Their hosts at NASA did not give them any information about building their own rockets. The Nike-Apache launch in India is a case of the transfer of a technological artifact (in this case, a rocket), but not the knowledge of how it was made. It would ultimately be the French who passed knowledge about rocket construction on to the Indian program, when they provided for the license manufacture of their Centaure rocket in India.3

The launch of a NASA rocket was an example of especially close Indo-American technical cooperation in the early independence period. That same month, the US Air Force offered training to the Indian Air Force on portable radar sets that the American government had donated to India. The Nike-Apache and its launching equipment likely came to India on one of the same cargo planes that brought supplies for Exercise Shiksha, as the joint air exercise was called. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, the United States would continue to offer technical aid to India on programs as diverse as agriculture, public health, and power generation. But except for the period around Exercise Shiksha, the United States hoped to avoid alienating its ally Pakistan by keeping its distance from any Indian programs with a clear military application. Despite Dr. Bhabha’s hopes for increasing Indo-American cooperation, rocketry had an especially obvious military application. Thus it would be the French, rather than the Americans, who would pass knowledge of rocket construction on to India.

  1. Gopal Raj, Reach for the Stars: The Evolution of India’s Rocket Programme (New Delhi: Viking, 2000), 16-17. []
  2. “India fires first rocket for space research,” Hindustan Times, November 22, 1963. []
  3. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, with Arun Tiwari, Wings of Fire: An Autobiography (Hyderabad: Universities Press, 1999), 37-9; Raj, Reach for the Stars, 32. Note that the license-production of French rockets was only a part of Indian rocket development. There was also a parallel program of Indian-designed sounding rockets, known as Rohini. Knowledge from Rohini as well as Centaure was applied in the SLV-3 program. []

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