On Wednesday morning, just after sunrise, Chandrayaan-1 - India's first unmanned mission to the moon - blasted off. History was made as the orbiter started its journey with a mission to study the moon. It's being described as a huge breakthrough for India and for the team of scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Once the space craft reaches the moon, a small probe will descend from the craft to the surface of the moon. The probe will carry the Indian flag to demonstrate that this is a historic Indian achievement.
However, despite this huge achievement, there is a sense that India as a country has failed to popularise science as a lifestyle and is instead teaching is as a mere subject which needs to be crammed.
The question that was being asked on CNN-IBN's Face The Nation was: Mission Moon Successful: Has India failed to popularise science?
On the panel of experts to try and answer the question were Scientific Officer Science Popularise Association of Communicators and Educators (SPACE), Nikhil Pawar; Head of the Science Department Springdales School, Anita Luthra; and Space Law Expert, Dr Ranjana Kaul.
India's first ever unmanned moon mission had a perfect lift-off at 06:22 hours IST on Wednesday morning. Chandrayaan-1 is orbitting Earth at the moment and will enter the moon's orbit on November 8, 2008.
India's first man in space, Wing Commander (Retd) Rakesh Sharma, who in 1984 spent a record eight days in space aboard a Soviet aircraft said, "Well, I would say, its a small step for science, for India through the efforts of ISRO, that's how I would describe it. Essentially it's the beginning of the exploration era and to tell the world now ISRO has now sort of come of age and that it is ready and able to take part in collaborative ventures to explore near earth object."
The successful launch has earned kudos for Indian scientists and school children across the country are delighted.
"What it really opens up is I think is whole new career option for youngsters. I think this is where we can expect kids to look beyond IT and it's a very lucky generation because within their lifetime they are going to be exploring space," Rakesh Sharma said.
Former ISRO chairman, U R Rao added, "It is am important step for us because we have for the first time, got into space. For the common man it is a great achievement and for the children, I think it is a great sense of pride as well as excitement because it will increase their interest in science and exploration."
HOW UNPOPULAR IS SCIENCE?
At the start of the show, 71 per cent of those who voted in said yes, India had failed to popularise science, while only 29 per cent disagreed.
Nikhil Pawar's organisation is dedicated to popularising science and creating a new generation of scientists, but he felt that ISRO had failed to popularise the subject in India.
"It's a historic day for India, it's a big event, it's the first time that we have actually launched a spacecraft outside the Earth's orbit - till now all communication satellite were limited to the Earth's orbit. This has left the Earth's gravitational field and is going around some other object in space. And while it is a very historic day, it's also a very sad day because ISRO failed to capitalise on it," he said.
Pawar built a model of Chandrayaan-1 using one set of pictures showing different angles of the craft.
He said SPACE wanted to reach out to the students but that his entire team was struggling to carry enough information out to give to them.
"It was really sad because SPACE Founder and General Secretary, Sachin Bhamba actually tried to contact the Public Relations Office of ISRO in April. Bhamba had said that SPACE would like to get a group of students to see the launch or at least just to interact with the scientists, but that did not happen," said Pawar.
ISRO VS NASA
NASA makes a huge effort to get students interested to witness lift-offs and other programmes but no Indian student has ever been to ISRO.
Anita Luthra said that so many students from India were invited to NASA every year. "NASA gifts out trips to students who do really well at the subject and it is sad that our Indian students apply for that but don't get a chance to see ISRO," she stated.
There is a lack of interest in pure sciences in school at the moment. Science in India has been merely reduced to being a stepping stone for those who want to go to IIT or take up Economic honours at the college level.
Luthra said that once students cross the school level, the subject completely loses its popularity. "The Indian Government has done nothing for sciences at the college level. We haven't kept pace with what globalisation offered 10 years ago," she added.
She said that India should have kept pace with the jobs and pay packets offered to science stream students and then maybe science would have been at a much higher peak in India today than where it is now.
"Unfortunately, science is still not considered a viable career option in India," Luthra added.
THE MOON AGREEMENT
Dr Ranjana Kaul, who is a space law expert said that all human activities in space have to be governed by a set of laws.
"At this time, space law conventions are the governing bodies, all of which have been formulated under the aegis of the United Nations. India is a signatory and has ratified all agreements except the Moon Agreement. None of the big space powers in the world have ratified the Moon Agreement in fact," she said.
There are actually websites now selling lunar land. They claim that they want to colonise the moon and send human beings to go and live there.
"This is going to be the next ambit of space law. The first problem is going to be exploiting the resources of the moon and that would involve enormous outlay of capital. At the moment there are four countries (India being the fourth to put a flag on the moon) in competition in this field. But that is not to say that any of the countries own any part of the lunar landscape," Dr Kaul explained.
She said that this was a huge exercise in international cooperation as six other countries have put their payloads on the Chandrayaan-1.
"The moon is said to be the repository of huge amounts of natural resources like Helium 3, which can be converted into energy that we urgently require on the Earth as of now. The moon will also become a platform for deep-space exploration - Mars and ahead - in the future," she added.
MOON AN OLD HAT?
There have already been 67 missions to the moon till date, so one wonders why India would choose to go to the moon.
To this Nikhil Pawar said, "What people fail to realise is that most of the 67 missions used to concentrate on a specific area of the moon. Ours is the first which will be a comprehensive two year mission that will map the entire moon and study its invisible region. We will study it in X-Ray and infra-red wave bands. Chandrayaan-1 is collecting a lot of comprehensive data which the other missions have not collected till now."
"This is the technical part though. The common man wants to know what is being done with his taxpayer rupees. Why go to the moon when everyone has already been there? It's like re-inventing the wheel. The answers to these questions need to come from ISRO," he stated.
He said that a manned mission would be more glamourous, dramatic and exciting, but an unmanned mission would garner more useful information.
"There are limitations to what a person can do. There are more costs involved, he or she won't be able to stay on the moon for two years like Chandrayaan-1 will," Pawar added.
Dr Kaul added at this point that space science has already impacted day-to-day life and the mobile phone is the first and primary example of this impact. The satellites and tele-communications came next.
"Space science is impacting us in every possible aspect," she stated.
ROLE MODELS FOR THE YOUNG
Nikhil Pawar said that scientists like Kasturi Rangan, U R Rao and Annadurai would definitely be role models, but only if people knew about them.
"Dr APJ Abdul Kalam is so well known and is a role model, but these others are not really known and so they cannot be considered role models," he said.
Anita Luthra said that science was losing its magic among the young and children needed to be given incentives.
"We had a science exhibition in our school where children from 200 schools - not all from urban areas - participated and the work they produced was tremendous. We gave them certificates, the CBSE gave them prize cheques, but then nothing after that. Someone needs to stand up and tell these children 'your work was so good that we will patent it for you or assure you a college seat'. But we don't do these things," she said.
Dr Kaul said that this was not ISRO's fault, but that it was a failure on the part of the Government and on the part of the Ministry of Education as well as Departments of Educations in states.
"The Indian Institute of Space Technology came up only about a year ago. I was in Glasgow at a space law convention and part of it was a student exhibition for popularising science and mathematics amongst older students as well as those who were ready to enter colleges. The exhibition had the most beautiful posters which showed that even the most mundane and ordinary jobs had some element of science in them which was critical to a better performance. This is what we are not doing," she added.
Anita Luthra agreed saying Indian teaching methods compartmentalised science.
"We are not relating it to any other subject, to everyday life, work and thinking. It needs to be made inter-disciplinary. Even if students want to become beauticians, they should be allowed to take up biology as a subject, so they know more about the skin. Let Science and all disciplines like English Literature, History, Geography etc go hand-in-hand," Luthra said.
Nikhil Pawar said that popularising science was not just about producing scientists. Science is a way of life and is everyone needs it. "It is not just about teaching science as a subject one has to ace in. It has to be taught as a lifestyle rather than a subject," he stated.
FINAL SMS POLL
QOTD: Mission Moon Successful: Has India failed to popularise science?
YES: 75 per cent
NO: 25 per cent