No Space Age for us

The RLV-TD on its way to the SDSC ahead of its May 23 test launch. Source: ISRO

There’s a 500-word section on the Wikipedia page for the NASA Space Shuttle that describes the markings on the programme’s iconic orbiter vehicle (OV). Specifically, it talks about where the words ‘NASA’ and ‘USA’ appeared on the vehicle’s body, if there were any other markings, as well as some modifications to how the flag was positioned. Small-time trivia-hunters like myself love this sort of thing because, whether in my imagination or writing, being able to recall and describe these markings provides a strong sense of character to the OV, apart from making it more memorable to my readers as well as myself.

These are the symbols in our memories, the emblem of choices that weren’t dictated by engineering requirements but by human wants, ambitions. And it’s important to remember that these signatures exist and even more so to remember them because of what they signify: ownership, belonging, identity.

Then again, the markings on an OV are a part of its visual identity. A majority of humans have not seen the OV take off and land, and there are many of us who can’t remember what that looked like on TV either. For us, the visual identity and its attendant shapes and colours may not be very cathartic – but we are also among those who have consumed information of these fascinating, awe-inspiring vehicles through news articles, podcasts, archival footage, etc., on the internet. There are feelings attached to some vague recollections of a name; we recall feats as well as some kind of character, as if the name belonged to a human. We remember where we were, what we were doing when the first flights of iconic missions took off. We use the triggers of our nostalgia to personalise our histories. Using some symbol or other, we forge a connection and make it ours.

This ourness is precisely what is lost, rather effectively diluted, through the use of bad metaphors, through ignorance and through silence. Great technology and great communication strive in opposite directions: the former is responsible, though in only an insentient and mechanistic way, for underscoring the distance – technological as much as physical – between starlight and the human eye that recognises it; the latter hopes to make us forget that distance. And in the absence of communication, our knowledge becomes clogged with noise and the facile beauty of our machines; without our symbols, we don’t see the imprints of humanity in the night sky but only our loneliness.

Such considerations are far removed from our daily lives. We don’t stop (okay, maybe Dennis Overbye does) to think about what our journalism needs to demand from history-making institutions – such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – apart from the precise details of those important moments. We don’t question the foundations of their glories as much as enquire after the glories themselves. We don’t engender the creation of sanctions against long-term equitable and sustainable growth. We thump our chests when probes are navigated to Mars on a Hollywood budget but we’re not outraged when only one scientific result has come of it. We are gratuitous with our praise even when all we’re processing are second-handed tidbits. We are proud of ISRO’s being removed from bureaucratic interference and, somehow, we are okay with ISRO giving access only to those journalists who have endeared themselves by reproducing press releases for two decades.

There’s no legislation that even says all knowledge generated by ISRO lies in the public domain. Irrespective of it being unlikely that ISRO will pursue legal action against me, I do deserve the right to use ISRO’s findings unto my private ends without anxiety. I’m reminded every once in a while that I, or one of my colleagues, could get into trouble for reusing images of the IRNSS launches from in a didactic video we made at The Wire (or even the image at the top of this piece). At the same time, many of us are proponents of the open access, open science and open knowledge movements.

We remember the multiwavelength astronomy satellite launched in September 2015 as “India’s Hubble” – which only serves to remind us how much smaller the ASTROSAT is than its American counterpart. How many of you know that one of the ASTROSAT instruments is one of the world’s best at studying gamma-ray bursts? We discover, like hungry dogs, ISRO’s first tests of a proto-RLV as “India’s space shuttle”; when, and if, we do have the RLV in 2030, wouldn’t we be thrilled to know that there is something wonderful about it not just of national provenance but of Indian provenance, too?

Instead, what we are beginning to see is that India – with its strapped-on space programme – is emulating its predecessors, reliving jubilations from a previous age. We see that there is no more of an Indianess in them as much as there is an HDR recap of American and Soviet aspirations. Without communication, without the symbols of its progress being bandied about, without pride (and just a little bit of arrogance thrown in), it is becoming increasingly harder through the decades for us – as journalists or otherwise – to lay claim to something, a scrap of paper, a scrap of attitude, that will make a part of the Space Age feel like our own.

At some point, I fear we will miss the starlight for the distance in between.

Update: We are more concerned for our machines than for our dreams. Hardly anyone is helping put together the bigger picture; hardly anyone is taking control of what we will remember, leaving us to pick up on piecemeal details, to piece together a fragmented, disjointed memory of what ISRO used to be. There is no freedom in making up your version of a moment in history. There needs to be more information; there need to be souvenirs and memorabilia; and the onus of making them needs to be not on the consumers of this culture but the producers.

9 responses to “No Space Age for us”

  1. Wah, sir! Kamaal kar diya. [Surely you’ve picked up some Hindi by now :-p] Poetic touch to this post. And I enjoyed the reference to the journalist who has been reproducing press releases for two decades. 😉

  2. Wouldn’t you say we also need more historians of science (in India) who do contemporary history? Of course, lack of access will be a problem they face too. But I can’t name many people who would have scholarly knowledge about ISRO history, other than those from the establishment, or acolytes. Could be a reflection of my ignorance, though.

    • I don’t think it’d be your ignorance. Yes, we do need historians of science – especially space history now that the sector is in a position to vastly benefit from such an academic pursuit. But yeah: the access specifically, and the engenderment of a broader culture overall, is my problem.

  3. This article touches a nerve. In general the state of science journalism in India is appalling. The public discourse is shaped by how technological advances are presented in the media. Most of the reportage related to India’s space program goes for the cheap comparisons with NASA and a bit of jingoism instead of going into depth. E.g. IRNSS is India’s GPS; ASTROSAT is India’s Hubble. You won’t believe the number of times I’ve discussed the faulty MOM vs. MAVEN comparison amongst friends. ISRO has done a great job in working within the restraints posed by the PSLV launch vehicle and the limits it places on size/weight of payload. They have tinkered with essentially similarly sized spacecraft frames and liquid apogee motor for varied missions like Chandrayaan, MOM and Astrosat. There is definitely an engineering story to tell. But I haven’t seen it told. In regional language media (Marathi for me) the science reportage is even more abysmal.

    The issues of access to ISRO and the science it generates are important too. Thanks for highlighting them.

    • Correct. Though we often complain about not being able to access scientists and have them talk to the press, I’ve noticed two things that happen more often and are more likely the route to a solution. First, many scientists are wary about speaking to the Indian press, not the foreign press. Second, even when the scientists who do speak up speak up, they are careful about the language they use and abstain from sensationalism. That is a problem whose blame can be laid only at the doorstep of bad journalism. We need to introspect about why we’re treating science the way we are – and if it would be any better if we could elevate it to the status enjoyed by business or sports reporting.