A few weeks ago, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) came frightfully close to witnessing their lunar lander Vikram autonomously descend onto the surface of the Moon. It has been suggested that a malfunctioning thruster was responsible for the failure to land as originally planned. Despite the disappointment, the moment has succeeded in capturing the imagination of many, in no small part because of the quality and scale of media coverage the event received: uniformly laudatory, often jingoistic, and at its worst, lacking any sense of proportion. It is now safe to say that the thin veneer of journalistic integrity that the Indian news media has sported until now has cracked, leaving behind an unabashedly sycophantic and obsequious cheer-leading squad.

But that is an obituary for another day.

It is notable that very little coverage of the Chandrayaan 2 mission was critical of its objectives in the first place. The stated technological objectives were to “demonstrate the ability to soft-land on the lunar surface and operate a robotic rover on the surface,” while the scientific objectives were to study “lunar topography, mineralogy, elemental abundance, the lunar exosphere, and signatures of hydroxyl and water ice.” It is taken for granted, both by politicians, scientists, and the public, that these are worthwhile pursuits, requiring no further qualifications. How was this homogeneity of opinion achieved, and was this always the case?

Spaceflight and Civil Rights

In order to answer this question, it is helpful to draw on history for precedent. Specifically, we consider the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Apollo 11 mission, which successfully landed humans on the Moon in 1969. This mission effectively marked the end of the Cold War-era Space Race, a fifteen-year long competition between the Soviet Union and the United States to achieve superior spaceflight capabilities. The the two superpowers’ forays into space were essentially a continuation of the arms race, with national security and prestige cited prominently as reasons for prioritising the rapid development of spaceflight technology.

Thompson’s Space Race: African American Newspapers Respond to Sputnik and Apollo 11 is dedicated in part to the question “Did the black press view this mission [Apollo 11] as a milestone in universal thought?” The excerpts he quotes from editorials and articles make for interesting reading, and Thompson notes that while African Americans writing at the time almost uniformly acknowledged the historic nature of the achievement, to different degrees each of them expressed a sentiment widely held among their peers: that it was an expensive venture undertaken at a time when there were more pressing “earthly” issues such as widespread poverty, hunger, unemployment, and homelessness. Many argued that the money might have been more profitably spent at home, and it is interesting that polls from that period of time indicated that a majority of Americans believed government funding of the space program should be decreased. In The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race, Amitai Etzioni writes tellingly about the space race:

“In an age that worships technology, when man is lost among the instruments he has created, the space race erects new pyramids of gadgetry; in an age of materialism, it piles on more investments in things when what is needed is investment in people; in an age of extrovert activism, it lends glory to rocket-powered jumps, when critical self-examination and reflection ought to be stressed; in an age of international conflicts, which approach doomsday dimensions, it provides a new focus for emotional divisions among men, when tasks to be shared and to bind them are needed… Above all, the space race is used as an escape, by focusing on the moon we delay facing ourselves, as Americans and as citizens of the earth.”

Civil rights activist Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, led a protest to highlight these issues, saying “America has reached out to the stars but has not reached out to her starving poor.” I try and imagine what they might have felt, to see a mission of epic proportions and mind-boggling complexity pursued doggedly over the course of less than a decade, with meticulous planning, research, and testing, succeed so spectacularly. And it makes me wonder if the success and jubilation stung, seeing the lack of political will directed towards causes like racial equality and segregation that affected their day-to-day lives.

In their own way, each of these writers was asking “What did the Apollo 11 launch mean to working-class African Americans?” Questions of this sort have an illustrious history, perhaps starting with Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? (1852), where he argued compellingly that it was “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Similarly, we ought to ask ourselves: what does the Indian space program mean to the recently disenfranchised residents of Assam? Or the incommunicado citizens of Kashmir?

The Political Dimensions of Scientific Progress

Our enthusiastic response to the scientific and technological prowess on display at ISRO should be tempered by an appreciation that there is a political dimension to science that, historically and today, becomes increasingly dominant under fascist governments; technological achievements are, at times like this, turned on their head, and served to the public as factors that legitimise their rule. The 20th century is replete with examples of science pressed into the service of militaristic governments, with scientists often eager to please their enthusiastic patrons and indifferent to their excesses. It is perhaps with this in mind that Pamela Philipose, public editor at The Wire observed “the thick layer of patriotism that engulfs our space programmes and the manner it has come to be fused with the expansive persona of the prime minister.”

I cannot answer the questions I have raised today. It is difficult, however, to imagine that our space program means much to those whose civil and human rights have been snatched away. As scientists and writers, while we may wish to celebrate Chandrayaan 2, we must come to terms with the question of what scientific advancement means in a society that is being ripped to shreds by the servants of a hateful ideology. Adopting this view, and couching scientific progress in a narrative that is centred around human development and cognisant of the political aspects of scientific and technological progress doesn’t detract from its achievements; rather, it keeps us from being distracted by the pomp and show. Above all, it keeps us from falling prey to the deceptions that have had the effect of passively subordinating the needs of many to the desires of a few.

Malhar Dandekar is an independent researcher and activist based in Bangalore, India.


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