Tag Archives: Indian Space Research Organisation

Credit: skeeze/pixabay

Going beyond ‘fake news = wrong facts’

Just as there’s no merit in writing a piece that is confused and incomplete, there’s no merit in digging through a dumpster and complaining that there’s trash. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when The Quint publishes something as ass-backwards as this article, titled ‘SpaceX or ISRO, Who’s Winning the Race to Space?’, in a time when finally, at long fucking last, people are beginning to wake up to the idea that ISRO’s and SpaceX’s responsibilities are just different.

In fact, the author of this article seems (temporarily) aware of this distinction, writing, “You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals”, even as he makes the comparison anyway. This is immature, irresponsible journalism (if that), worse than the Sisyphean he-said-she-said variety if only because the ‘he’ in this case is the author himself.

But more importantly, against the backdrop of the I&B ministry’s guidelines on combating fake news that were released, and then retracted, earlier today, I briefly wondered whether this Quint piece could be considered fake news. A friend quickly disabused me of the idea by pointing out that this isn’t exactly news, doesn’t contain factual mistakes and doesn’t seem to have malicious intent – all valid points. However, I’m still not sure I agree… My reasons:

1. News is information that is new, contemporary and in the public interest. While the last two parameters can be defined somewhat objectively, novelty can and is frequently subjective. Often, it also extends to certain demographic groups within a population, such as readers of the 18-24 age group, for whom a bit of information that’s old for others is new.

2. The article doesn’t contain factual mistakes but the relationships the author defines between various facts are wrong and untrue. There are also assumptions made in the article (dissected below) that make the author sound stupid more than anything else. One does have the freedom of expression but journalists and publishers also have a responsibility to be… well, responsible.

3. You can make rational decisions only when you know everything there is to know apropos said decisions. So when you deliberately ignore certain details that would render an argument meaningless just so you can make the argument yourself, that’s malice. Especially when you then click the ‘publish’ button and watch as a clump of irrational clutch of sememes reaches 19,000 people in 18 hours.

So to me, this article is fake news.

Here’s another locus: according to Dictionary.com, fake news is

false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.

The Quint article is sensational. It claims ISRO and SpaceX can’t be compared but goes on to make the comparison anyway. Why? Traffic, visibility and revenue (through ads on The Quint‘s pages). It’s textual faff that wastes the reader’s time, forces others to spend time correcting the irrational beliefs that will take root in people’s minds as a result of reading the article, and it’s just asinine of The Quint to lend itself as a platform for such endeavours. It’s the sort of thing we frequently blame the male protagonists in Indian films for: spending 150 minutes realising his mistakes.

But again, I do apologise for whining that there’s trash in the dumpster. (Aside: A recent headline in Esquire had just the term for journalism-done-bad – ‘trash avalanche’.)

§

I must dissect the article. It’s an addiction!

India’s premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has built a reputation for launching rockets into space at very convenient prices. The consequent effect?

A lot of customers from around the world have come flocking to avail India’s economical rocket-launching services and this has helped the country make some extra bucks from its space exploration program.

Extra bucks, eh?

However, it’s a pretty competitive space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had a decent run in the past couple of days and the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket has paved the way for launching heavy satellites into space.

You don’t say…

SpaceX and ISRO are competitors of sorts in the business of commercial satellite launches. The question is, how big of a threat is SpaceX to India’s space agency?

Wrong + 🚩

Okay, first some facts.

That’s kind of you.

ISRO is an experienced campaigner in the field of space exploration as it’s been launching rockets into space since as early as 1975. From sending India’s first satellite into space (Aryabhata), to successfully launching some of the most historic missions like Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Mangalyaan (2013), ISRO has done it all.

You should check out some of the stuff NASA, JAXA and ESA have done. ISRO really hasn’t done it all – and neither have NASA, JAXA and ESA.

ISRO has carried out a total of 96 spacecraft missions, which involve 66 launch missions.

Apart from the above, it has various other goals, ranging from maintaining the communication satellite constellation around the Earth to sending manned missions into space. Not easy by any means.

Not easy to have goals? Have you seen the todo lists of most people?

Meanwhile, SpaceX is the new kid on the block and really isn’t a big space exploration agency (at least not as big as ISRO).

That’s a comparison 🚩

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk with an aim to provide economically efficient ways to launch satellites and also colonise Mars!
Overall, since SpaceX’s first mission in June, 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 51 times, out of which 49 have been successful. That’s a 96 percent success rate!

So, in terms of experience, SpaceX still has some catching up to do. But in terms of success rate, it’s tough to beat at 96 percent.

Do you know that if I launch one rocket successfully, I’ll have a success rate of 100%?

SpaceX is a privately-owned enterprise and is funded by big companies like Google and Fidelity. According to a Forbes, SpaceX is valued at more than $20 billion (Rs 13.035 crore) as of December 2017.

That’s Rs 1.3 lakh crore, not Rs 13.035 crore.

ISRO on the other hand is a state-owned entity and is run and controlled by the Government of India. Each year, the agency is allocated a certain part of the nation’s budget. For the year 2018-19, the Centre has allocated Rs 8,936 crore to the space organisation.

There is also a big difference in terms of cost per mission. For example, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s cost per launch comes up to $62 million, while ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) costs roughly $15 million per launch.

You’re comparing the mission costs of one rocket that can carry 10,000+ kg to the LEO to a rocket that can carry 3,800 kg to the LEO. Obviously the former is going to be costlier!

The size of the payloads are different as the Falcon 9 carries much heavier bulk than India’s rockets.

Dear author: please mention that this fact renders the comparison in your previous line meaningless. At least refrain from using terms like “big difference”.

Currently, India makes very less on commercial missions as most of them carry small or nano-satellites. Between 2013 and 2015, ISRO charged an average of $3 million per satellite. That’s peanuts compared to a SpaceX launch, which costs $60 million.

First: Antrix, not ISRO, charges $3 million per satellite. Second: By not discussing payload mass and orbital injection specifications, the author’s withholding information that will make this “peanuts” juxtaposition illogical. Third: ISRO and SpaceX operate out of different economies – a point that incumbent ISRO chairman K. Sivan has emphasised – leading to different costing (e.g. have you considered labour cost?). Finally, source of data?

According to a 2016 report, India’s premier space agency earned a revenue of around Rs 230 crore through commercial launch services, which is about 0.6 percent of the global launch services market.

India is still to make big ‘moolah’ from their launches as small satellites don’t pull in a lot of money as compared to bigger ones.

That last bit – does the Department of Space know you’re feeling this way? Because if they did, they might not go ahead with building the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). So that’s another 🚩

Despite the fact that ISRO is considered competition for Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the business of commercial satellite launches,

Although this claim is bandied about in the press, I doubt it’s true given the differences in payload capacities, costs to space and launch frequencies of the PSLV/GSLV and the Falcon 9.

he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how he is “impressed” by India’s frugal methods of conducting successful launch missions.

Is this a big deal? Or are you awed that India’s efforts are being lauded by a white man of the west?

Last year in February, India launched 104 satellites into space using a single rocket, which really caught Musk’s attention. This is a world record that India holds till date.

If that’s not impressive enough, India also launched it’s Mars probe (Mangalyaan) in 2014 which cost less than what it cost to make the Hollywood movie “The Martian”. Ironical?

It’s not “impressive enough”. It’s not ironic.

You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals. But again, if Musk is impressed, it means ISRO has hit it out of the park.

But if Musk hadn’t been impressed, then ISRO would’ve continued to be a failure in your eyes, of course.

I am not going to pick a winner because of a lot of reasons. One of them is that I like both of them.

ISRO and SpaceX must both be so relieved.

SpaceX is a 15-year-old company, which has made heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle, while ISRO is a 40-year-old organisation making inroads into the medium-lift category; Not to mention it also has a billion other things to take care of (including working on reusable rockets).

Since the objective of both these organisations is to make frugal space missions possible, it’s no doubt that ISRO has the lead in this race.

How exactly? 🤔 Also, if we shouldn’t be comparing ISRO and SpaceX, how’re they in the same race?

Yes, there is a lot that SpaceX can learn from what India has achieved till now, but that can work both ways, considering the technology SpaceX is using is much more advanced. But in the end one cannot deny the fact that SpaceX is all about launching rockets and getting them back to Earth in one piece, not making satellites.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

K. Sivan in Tirumala. Source: YouTube

First temple, then launchpad?

ISRO chairman K. Sivan is free to worship and worship any deity he bloody well wants ; that’s his right. But it’s not entirely comforting when you think back about all the chairpersons ISRO has had – all men, all Hindus – who have made offerings at temples to “take ISRO to new heights” or similar.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the people’s right to any religion but Article 51AH, which asks people to cultivate a scientific temper, calls into question why those who are leaders of a national space industry have reason to leave anything about the missions they are responsible for in the hands of an “almighty” being.

Another thing that bothers me about ISRO’s supplicants-in-chief is also something that bothers me about the day-to-day practice of theism: attributing successes to the work of a deity instead of to the hard work and convictions of regular, whether or not particularly skilled, people (and elements of the natural universe). In the same vein, every time Sivan, K. Radhakrishnan, G. Madhavan Nair or K. Kasturirangan visited a temple – and all of them have – one felt as if ‘their ISRO’ itself was subject to the benevolence of a deity.

… and what has thus far only been upper-caste Hindu deities, an indictment of the lack of diversity at ISRO, in turn an echo of the lack of diversity within the space sector. Call me a cynic but I’m sure the RSS and its ilk would have given a more outrageous fuck had the chairperson been Muslim/Christian or of a lower caste. And I’m sure sections of the media would’ve lapped this up with extortionate delight.

But what irks me most of all is that these men are leaders. Millions of people look up to them, whether for guidance or for inspiration. Many of them are children – and a part of what they’re hearing is that some things at ISRO work out only if a god deigns it.

Irrespective of their being public figures, ISRO’s chairpersons are, “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part” … “equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion” . But because they are also public figures, which allows me to be concerned about what they’re up to, ISRO’s leaders who pay temple visits to “pray for ISRO” also have a duty to openly clarify the following:

  1. Why they are praying “for ISRO”
  2. If smart, hard and/or ethical work is a component of ISRO’s success
  3. Whether they or their beliefs have been the source of any discomfort within the organisation…

… every time they make a temple visit and then speak to the press.

Public displays of Hinduism, signalling ISRO as an organisation benefiting from Hindu benevolence, and shifting the focus away from hard scientific labour to the blessing of gods – all of these are messages with potential for malevolence, and public figures like ISRO chiefs have been legitimising them by communicating them.

Like I said before, Sivan can follow any religion he bloody well wants, but in a politico-religious climate like ours, people – whether public figures or not – must interrogate the meaning of various forms of public participation more before engaging with them. They need to be smarter about what they say and how they act in public. It’s not rocket science.

Featured image source: YouTube.

Credit: fernandozhiminaicela/pixabay

Moon mission pushed to October, so we wait

So, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Chandrayaan 2 mission to the Moon has been pushed to October from April. Delays of this sort are to be expected for missions of this scale, although I’ve also heard that ISRO often does a poor job of setting realistic launch dates for its missions in general.

The actual launch window for Chandrayaan 2 had been April-November, but recent reports in the media quoting ISRO officials had created the impression that people were confident April would be it.

But now, with the announcement of delay, officials’ confidence on display earlier this year that the launch would happen in April is now in serious question. The most recent media report I can find that quotes a senior official saying Chandrayaan 2 will be launched in April is dated February 16, 2018. The primary Google search result still says “April 2018”.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 20.50.47

I also find it curious that the mission’s delay was announced barely 30 or so days before it was slated to launch instead of much earlier. For missions of this size, delays can be anticipated sooner… unless something unexpected has happened. Has it? No clue. Is it because of the probe itself or the launcher, a GSLV Mk II? Again, no clue.

So we do what we always have: wait.

Mission readiness is one thing but setting realistic launch dates, communicating them to the public in a timely manner and keeping all stakeholders – including the people – informed of the reasons for delay are quite another.

Featured image credit: fernandozhiminaicela/pixabay.

The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO

For space, frugality is a harmful aspiration

Ref:

‘ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to cost lesser than Hollywood movie Interstellar – here’s how they make it cost-effective’, staff, Moneycontrol, February 20, 2018. 

‘Chandrayaan-2 mission cheaper than Hollywood film Interstellar’, Surendra Singh, Times of India, February 20, 2018. 

The following statements from the Moneycontrol and Times of India articles have no meaning:

  1. The cost of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was less than the production cost of the film Gravity.
  2. The cost of ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission is expected to be less than the production cost of the film Interstellar.

It’s like saying the angular momentum of a frog is lower than the speed of light. “But of course,” you’re going to say, “we’re comparing angular momentum to speed – they have different dimensions”. Well, the production cost of a film and mission costs also have different dimensions if you cared to look beyond the ‘$’ prefix. That’s because you can’t just pick up two dollar figures, decide which one’s lower and feel good about that without any social and economic context.

For example, what explains the choice of films to compare mission costs to? Is it because Gravity and Interstellar were both set in space? Is it because both films are fairly famous? Is it also because both films were released recently? Or is it because they offered convenient numbers? It’s probably the last one because there’s no reason otherwise to have picked these two films over, say, After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant – all of which were set in space AND cost less to make than Interstellar.

So I suspect it would be equally fair to say that the cost of C’yaan 2 is more than the budget of After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant. But few are going to spin it like this because of two reasons:

  1. The cost of anything has to be a rational, positive number, so saying cost(Y) is less than cost(X) would imply that cost(X) > cost(Y) ≥ 0; however, saying cost(Y) is greater than cost(X) doesn’t give us any real sense of what cost(Y) could be because it could approach ∞ or…
  2. Make cost (Y) feel like it’s gigantic, often because your reader assumes cost(Y) should be compared to cost(X) simply because you’ve done so

Now, what comparing C’yaan 2’s cost to that of making Interstellar achieves very well is a sense of the magnitude of the number involved. It’s an excellent associative mnemonic that will likely ensure you don’t forget how much C’yaan 2 cost – except you’d also have to know how much Interstellar cost. Without this bit of the statement, you have one equation and two variables, a.k.a. an unsolvable problem.

Additionally, journalists don’t use such comparisons in other beats. For example, when the Union budget was announced on February 1 this year, nobody was comparing anything to the production costs of assets that had a high cultural cachet. Rs 12.5 crore was Rs 12.5 crore; it was not framed as “India spends less on annual scholarships for students with disabilities than it cost to make Kabali“.

This suggests that such comparisons are reserved by some journalists for matters of space, which in turn raises the possibility that those journalists, and their bosses, organisations and readers, are prompted to think of costs in the space sector as something that must always be brought down. This is where this belief becomes pernicious: it assumes a life of its own. It shouldn’t. Lowering costs becomes a priority only after scientists and engineers have checked tens, possibly hundreds, of other boxes. Using only dollar figures to represent this effort mischaracterises it as simply being an exercise in cost reduction.

So, (risking repetition:) comparing a mission cost to a movie budget tells us absolutely nothing of meaning or value. Thanks to how Moneycontrol’s phrased it, all I know now is that C’yaan 2 is going to cost less than $165 million to make. Why not just say that and walk away? (While one could compare $165 million to mission costs at other space agencies, ISRO chief K. Sivan has advised against it; if one wants to compare it to other PSUs in India, I would advise against it.) The need to bring Interstellar into this, of course, is because we’ve got to show up the West.

And once we’re done showing up the West, we still have to keep. Showing up. The West. Because we’re obsessed with what white people do in first-world countries. If we didn’t have them to show up, who knows, we’d have framed ISRO news differently already because we’d have been able to see $165 million for what it is: a dimensionless number beyond the ‘$’ prefix. Without any other details about C’yaan 2 itself, it’s pretty fucking meaningless.

Please don’t celebrate frugality. It’s an unbecoming tag for any space programme. ISRO may have been successful in keeping costs down but, in the long run, the numbers will definitely go up. Frugality is a harmful aspiration vis-à-vis a sector banking on reliability and redundancy. And for fuck’s sake, never compare: the act of it creates just the wrong ideas about what space agencies are doing, what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re doing it. For example, consider Sivan’s answer when asked by a Times of India reporter as to how ISRO kept its costs down:

Simplifying the system, miniaturising the complex big system, strict quality control and maximising output from a product, make the missions of Indian space agency cost-effective. We keep strict vigil on each and every stage of development of a spacecraft or a rocket and, therefore, we are able to avoid wastage of products, which helps us minimise the mission cost.

If I didn’t know Sivan was saying this, I’d have thought it was techno-managerial babble from Dilbert (maybe with the exception of QC). More importantly, Sivan doesn’t say here what ISRO is doing differently from other space agencies (such as, say, accessing cheaper labour), which is what would matter when you’re rearing to go “neener neener” at NASA/ESA, but sticks to talking about what everyone already does. Do you think NASA and ESA waste products? Do they not remain vigilant during each and every stage of development? Do they not have robust QC standards and enforcement regimes?

Notice here that Sivan isn’t saying “we’re doing it cheaper than others”, only that doing these things keeps the space agency “cost-effective”. Cost-effective is not the same as frugal.

Featured image: The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO.

A Falcon 9 lifting off in 2014. Credit: SpaceX

ISRO v. SpaceX doesn’t make sense

Though I’ve never met the guy, I don’t hold Pallava Bagla in very high regard because his stories – particularly of the Indian space programme – for NDTV have often reeked of simplistic concerns, pettiness and, increasingly of late, a nationalistic pride. The most recent instance all these characteristics were put on display was February 12, when NDTV published a 20-minute video of Bagla interviewing K. Sivan, ISRO’s new chairman.

The video is headlined ‘New ISRO Chief Rocket Man Sivan K, A Farmer’s Son, Takes On SpaceX’. What a great story, innit? A farmer’s son taking on SpaceX chief Elon Musk! But if you’re able to stop there and ask a few questions, you’re going to realise that the headline is a load of tosh. First off, the statement that Sivan is a “farmer’s son” is a glancing reference, if not more, to that New York Times cartoon – the implicit jingoism of which we really must get past soon. The national government has been building false narratives around supporting farmers but here we are, valorising the son of one.

Also, referring to Sivan as a “farmer’s son” IMO reduces the man to that one factoid (particularly to serve a narrative Sivan himself may not wish to pursue), as if that’s all we’re going to choose to see about his origins, neglecting what else could have enabled him to succeed the way he has.

Second: ISRO “takes on SpaceX” is a dumb statement. ISRO is a public sector organisation; SpaceX is a private corporation. Their goals are so markedly different that I’m not entirely sure why whoever crafted the headline (not necessarily Bagla) feels ISRO might be threatened by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch (on February 4); I’m less sure why Bagla himself went on to spin his story thus. Case in point: SpaceX is going bigger to be able to take humans to Mars within 10 years; ISRO’s going smaller to help Antrix capitalise on the demand for launching micro and nanosats as well as bigger to launch heavier telecom satellites. Additionally, I know for a fact that ISRO has been cognisant of modularised launch vehicles for at least three years, and this isn’t something Sivan or anyone else has suddenly stopped to consider following the Falcon Heavy launch. The idea’s been around for a bit longer.

All of this is put on show in an exchange about five minutes into the video, as Bagla goes hard at the idea of ISRO possibly lagging behind SpaceX whereas Sivan says (twice) that the PSLV and the Falcon 9 can’t be compared. Transcript:

KS: We can’t compare how much the launch vehicles cost. It depends on the environment in which the manufacturing is realised. I can assure you that our costs are very low because of the way we are manufacturing, the materials we’ve chosen to work with – this way, our costs are always low. But I don’t want to compare because this is always subjective.

PB: But at the same time, we are known for our very low cost missions. For a Falcon 9, they charge about $70 million per launch (ballpark figures) while India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price. This included the rocket and the satellite, going all the way to Mars. Does that make us feel like we’re very, very competitive in pricing, which is why so many foreign customers are also coming to India?

(ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was a technology demonstrator. The endeavour’s primary mission was to provide a proof of concept of an Indian orbiter at Mars. Second, the satellite’s size and capabilities were both limited by the PSLV’s payload capacity; to wit, MOM’s scientific payload weighed a measly 15 kg whereas the NASA MAVEN, which launched in the same window as MOM, had instruments weighing 65 kg. Third, not many scientific papers have been published on the back of MOM-specific findings. When Bagla says “India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price” as a single Falcon 9 launch, I also invite him to consider that ISRO has access to cheaper labour than is available in the West and that the MOM launch was noncommercial whereas the Falcon 9 is a rocket developed – and priced – for commerce and profit.)

KS: Foreign customers are coming to India for two reasons. One is, as you said, we’re cost effective – mainly by way of manufacturing and selection of materials. We also make simple rockets. The second reason customers prefer us is the robustness. The reliability of our PSLV is large. When a customer comes to us, they want to make sure there’s a 100% chance their satellite reaches its orbital slot.

PB: So are we cheaper than SpaceX or not?

🤦🏾

KS: Again, I don’t want to compare because it is not correct to compare. If the two rockets were made in the same timeframe, in the same place with equivalent amounts of effort, we can compare. But the rockets have been made in different parts of the world, according to different needs. What I can say is that we have a low-cost vehicle.

Almost exactly a year ago, I’d argued the same thing for The Wire, in an article that didn’t go down well with most readers (across the political spectrum). The thrust of it was that the PSLV had been designed from 1977 onwards to launch Indian remote-sensing satellites and that ISRO receives all its funding from the Department of Space. OTOH, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to fit prevailing market needs and, though the company receives a lot of money through NASA contracts, its raison d’être as a private entity is to make money by commercialising launch services. Excerpt:

Casting the GSLV, presumably the Mk-III, as a super-soldier in the space-war arena could be misguided. Unlike SpaceX or Arianespace, but much like Roscosmos, ISRO is a state-backed space agency. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-services provider and fulfil the needs of both private entities as well as the government, but government first, at least since that is how policies are currently oriented. This means the GSLV Mk-III has been developed keeping in mind the satellites India currently needs, or at least needs to launch without ISRO having to depend on foreign rockets. …

On the other hand, Arianespace and SpaceX are both almost exclusively market-driven, SpaceX less so because it was set up with the ostensible goal of colonising Mars. Nonetheless, en route to building the Falcon Heavy, the company has built a workhorse of its own in the Falcon 9. And either way, together with Arianespace, it has carved out a sizeable chunk of the satellite-launching market. …

Thus, though Antrix is tasked with maximising profits, ISRO shouldn’t bank on the commercial satellites market because its mix of priorities is more diverse than those of SpaceX or Arianespace. In other words, the point isn’t to belittle ISRO’s launchers but to state that such comparisons might just be pointless because it is a case of apples and oranges.

Sadly for Bagla – and many others like him looking the fools for pushing such a silly idea – our own space programme assumes value only when compared to someone else’s agenda, irrespective of whether the comparison even makes sense. I also wonder if Sivan thinks such are the questions the consumers of NDTV’s journalism want answered – an idea not so farfetched if you consider that not many journalists get access to ISRO’s top brass in the first place – as well as what fraction of the Indian citizenry consumes the success of the Indian space programme simply relative to the successes of others and not as an enterprise established to serve India’s needs first.

We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

ToI successfully launches story using image from China

It may not seem like a big deal, and the sort of thing that happens often at Times of India. After ISRO “successfully” tested its scramjet engine in what seem like the early hours of August 28, Times of India published a story announcing the development. And for the story, the lead image was that of a Chinese rocket. No biggie, right? I mean, copy-editors AFAIK are given instructions to not reuse images, and in this case all the reader needed to be shown was a representative image of a rocket taking off.

The ToI story showing a picture of a Chinese rocket adjacent to the announcement that ISRO has tested its scramjet engine.

The ToI story showing a picture of a Chinese rocket adjacent to the announcement that ISRO has tested its scramjet engine.

But if you looked intently, it is a biggie. I’m guessing Times of India used that image because it had run out of ISRO images to use, or even reuse. In the four days preceding the scramjet engine test, ISRO’s Twitter timeline was empty and no press releases had been issued. All that was known was that a test was going to happen. In fact, even the details of the test turned out to be different: ISRO had originally suggested that the scramjet engine would be fired at an altitude of around 70 km; sometime after, it seems this parameter had been changed to 20 km. The test also happened at 6 am, which nobody knew was going to be the case (and which is hardly the sort of thing ISRO could decide at the last minute).

Even ahead of – and during – the previous RLV-related test conducted on May 23, ISRO was silent on all of the details. What was known emerged from two sources: K. Sivan from the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram and news agencies like PTI and IANS. The organisation itself did nothing in its official capacity to publicly qualify the test. Some people I spoke to today mentioned that this may not have been something ISRO considered worth highlighting to the media. I mean, no one is expecting this test to be sensational; it’s already been established that the four major RLV tests are all about making measurements, and the scram test isn’t even one of them. If this is really why ISRO chooses to be quiet, then it is simply misunderstanding the media’s role and responsibility.

From my PoV, there are two issues at work here. First, ISRO has no incentive to speak to the media. Second, strategic interests are involved in ISRO’s developing a reusable launch vehicle. Both together keep the organisation immune to the consequences of zero public outreach. Unlike NASA, whose media machine is one of the best on the planet but which also banks on public support to secure federal funding, ISRO does not have to campaign for its money nor does it have to be publicly accountable. Effectively, it is non-consultative in many ways and not compelled to engage in conversations. This is still okay. My problem is that ISRO is also caged as a result, the prime-mover of our space programme taken hostage by a system that lets ISRO work in the environment that it does instead of – as I get often get the impression from speaking to people who have worked with it – being much more.

In the case of the first RLV test (the one on May 23), photos emerged a couple days after the test had concluded while there was no announcement, tweet or release issued before; it even took a while to ascertain its success. In fact, after the test, Sivan had told Zee News that there may have been a flaw in one of ISRO’s calculations but the statement was not followed up. I’m also told now that today’s scram test was something ISRO was happy with and that the official announcement will happen soon. These efforts, and this communication, even if made privately, are appreciated but it’s not all that could have been done. One of the many consequences of this silence is that a copy-editor at Times of India has to work with very little to publish something worth printing. And then get ridiculed for it.

Stenograph the science down

A piece in Zee News, headlined ISRO to test next reusable launch vehicle after studying data of May 23 flight, begins thus:

The Indian Space Research Organisation has successfully launched it’s first ever ‘Made-in-India’ space shuttle RLV-Technology Demonstrator on May 23, 2016. After the launch, the Indian space agency will now test the next reusable launch vehicle test after studying May 23 flight data. A senior official in the Indian space agency says that India will test the next set of space technologies relating to the reusable launch vehicle (RLV) after studying the data collected from the May 23 flight of RLV-Technology Demonstrator. “We will have to study the data generated from the May 23 flight. Then we have to decide on the next set of technologies to be tested on the next flight. We have not finalised the time frame for the next RLV flight,” K Sivan, director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) said on Wednesday.

Apart from presenting very little new information with each passing sentence, the piece also buries an important quote, and what could well have been the piece’s real peg, more than half the way down:

As per data the RLV-TD landed softly in Bay of Bengal. As per our calculations it would have disintegrated at the speed at which it touched the sea,” Sivan said.

It sounds like Sivan is admitting to a mistake in the calculations. There should have been a follow-up question at this point – asking him to elaborate on the mismatch – because this is valuable new information. Instead, the piece marches on as if Sivan had just commented on the weather. And in hindsight, the piece’s first few paragraphs present information that is blatantly obvious: of course results from the first test are going to inform the design of the second test. What new information are we to glean from such a statement?

Or is it that we’re paying no attention to the science and instead reproducing Sivan’s words line by line because they’re made of gold?

A tangential comment: The piece’s second, third and fourth sentences say the same thing. Sandwiching one meaty sentence between layers of faff is a symptom of writing for newspapers – where there is some space to fill for the sake of there being some attention to grab. At the same time, such writing is unthinkingly carried to the web because many publishers believe that staking a claim to ‘publishing on the web’ only means making podcasts and interactive graphics. What about concision?

No Space Age for us

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 isro.gov.in 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.

An identity for ISRO through a space agreement it may or may not sign

Indians, regardless of politics or ideology, have a high opinion of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Conversations centred on it usually retain a positive arc, sometimes even verging on the exaggerated in lay circles – in part because the organisation’s stunted PR policies haven’t given the people much to go by, in part because of pride. Then again, the numbers by themselves are impressive: Since 1993, there have been 32 successful PSLV launches with over 90 instruments sent into space; ISRO has sent probes to observe the Moon and Mars up close; launched a multi-wavelength space-probe; started work on a human spaceflight program; developed two active launch vehicles with two others still in the works; and it is continuing its work on cryogenic and scramjet engines.

The case of the cryogenic engine is particularly interesting and, as it happens, relevant to a certain agreement that India and the US haven’t been able to sign for more than a decade now. These details and more were revealed when a clutch of diplomatic cables containing the transcript of conversations between officials from the Government of India, ISRO, the US Trade Representative (USTR) and other federal agencies surfaced on Wikileaks in the week of May 16. One of themdelineates some concerns the Americans had about how the Indian public regarded US attempts to stall the transfer of cryogenic engines from the erstwhile USSR to India, and the complications that were born as a result.

In 1986, ISRO initiated the development of a one-tonne cryogenic engine for use on its planned Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). Two years later, an American company offered to sell RL-10 cryogenic engines (used onboard the Atlas-Centaur Launch Vehicle) to ISRO but the offer was turned down because the cost was too high ($800 million) and an offer to give us the knowhow to make the engines was subject to approval by the US government, which wasn’t assured. Next, Arianespace, a French company, offered to sell two of its HM7 cryogenic engines along with the knowhow for $1,200 million. This offer was also rejected. Then, around 1989, a Soviet company named Glavkosmos offered to sell two cryogenic engines, transfer the knowhow as well as train some ISRO personnel – all for Rs.230 crore ($132 million at the time). This offer was taken up.

However, 15 months later, the US government demanded that the deal be called off because it allegedly violated some terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export control regime that Washington and Moscow are both part of. As U.R. Rao, former chairman of ISRO, writes in his book India’s Rise as a Space Power, “While the US did not object to the agreement with Glavkosmos at the time of signing, the rapid progress made by ISRO in launch vehicle technology was probably the primary cause which triggered [the delayed reaction 15 months later].” Officials on the Indian side were annoyed by the threat because solid- and liquid-fuel motors were preferred for use in rockets – not the hard-to-operate cryogenic engines – and because India had already indigenously developed such rockets (a concern that would be revived later). Nonetheless, after it became clear that the deal between Glavkosmos and ISRO wouldn’t be called off, the US imposed a two-year sanction from 1992 that voided all contracts between ISRO and the US and the transfer of any goods or services between them.

Remembering the cryogenic engines affair

This episode raised its ugly head once again in 2006, when India and the US – which had just issued a landmark statement on nuclear cooperation a year earlier – agreed on the final text of the Technical Safeguards Agreement (TSA) they would sign three years later. The TSA would “facilitate the launch of US satellite components on Indian space launch vehicles”. At this time, negotiations were also on for the Commercial Space Launch Agreement (CSLA), which would allow the launch of American commercial satellites onboard Indian launch vehicles. The terms of the CSLA were derived from the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), a bilateral dialogue that began during the Vajpayee government and defined a series of “quid-pro-quos” between the two countries that eventually led to the 2005 civilian nuclear deal. A new and niggling issue that crept in was that the US government was attempting to include satellite services in the CSLA – a move the Indian government was opposed to because it amounted to shifting the “carefully negotiated” NSSP goalposts.

As negotiations proceeded, the cable, declassified by the then US ambassador David Mulford, reads:

“Since the inception of the NSSP, reactionary holdouts within the Indian space bureaucracy and in the media and policy community have savaged the concept of greater ties with the US, pointing to the progress that India’s indigenous programs made without assistance from the West. The legacy of bitterness mingled with pride at US sanctions continues in the present debate, with commentators frequently referring to US actions to block the sale of Russian cryogenic engines in the 1990s as proof that American interest continues to focus on hobbling and/or displacing India’s indigenous launch and satellite capabilities.”

The timing of the Glavkosmos offer, and the American intervention to block it, is important when determining how much the indigenous development of the cryogenic upper stage in the 2000s meant to India. After ISRO had turned down Arianespace’s HM7 engines offer, it had decided to develop a cryogenic engine from scratch by itself over eight years. As a result, the GSLV program would’ve been set back by at least that much. And it was this setback that Glavkosmos helped avoid (allowing the GSLV development programme to commence in 1990). Then again, with the more-US-friendly Boris Yeltsin having succeeded Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Glavkosmos was pressurised from the new Russian government to renegotiate its ISRO deal. In December 1993, it was agreed that Glavkosmos would provide four operational cryogenic engines and two mockups at the same cost (Rs.230 crore), with three more for $9 million, but without any more technology transfer.

The result was that ISRO had to fabricate its own cryogenic engines (with an initial investment of Rs.280 crore in 1993) with little knowledge of the challenges and solutions involved. The first successful test flight happened in January 2014 on board the GSLV-D5 mission.

So a part of what’re proud about ISRO today, and repeatedly celebrate, is rooted in an act whose memories were potential retardants for a lucrative Indo-US space deal. Moreover, they would also entrench any concessions made on the Indian side in a language that was skeptical of the Americans by default. As the US cable notes:

“While proponents point to ISRO’s pragmatism and scientific openness (a point we endorse), opponents of the [123] nuclear deal have accused ISRO of selling out India’s domestic prowess in space launch vehicles and satellite construction in order to serve the political goal of closer ties with the US. They compare ISRO’s “caving to political pressure” unfavorably with … Anil Kakodkar’s public statements drawing a red line on what India’s nuclear establishment would not accept under hypothetical civil-military nuclear separation plans.”

How do we square this ‘problematic recall’ with, as the same cable also quotes, former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair saying a deal with the US would be “central to India’s international outreach”? Evidently, agreements like the TSA and CSLA signal a reversal of priorities for the US government – away from the insecurities motivated by Cold-War circumstances and toward capitalising on India’s rising prominence in the Space Age. In the same vein, further considering what else could be holding back the CSLA throws more light on what another government sees as being problematic about ISRO.

Seeing the need for the CSLA

The drafting of the CSLA was motivated by an uptick in collaborations between Indian and American entities in areas of strategic interest. The scope of these collaborations was determined by the NSSP, which laid the groundwork for the civilian nuclear deal. While the TSA would allow for American officials to inspect the integration of noncommercial American payloads with ISRO rockets ahead of launch, to prevent their misuse or misappropriation, it wouldn’t contain the checks necessary to launch commercial American payloads with ISRO rockets. Enter CSLA – and by 2006, the Americans had started to bargain for the inclusion of satellite services in it. (Note: US communications satellites are excluded from the CSLA because their use requires separate clearances from the State Department.)

However, the government of India wasn’t okay with the inclusion of satellite services in the CSLA because ISRO simply wasn’t ready for it and also because all other CSLAs that the US had signed didn’t include satellite services. The way S. Jaishankar – who was the MEA joint secretary dealing with North America at the time – put it: “As a market economy, India is entitled to an unencumbered CSLA with the US”. This, presumably, was also an allusion to the fact that Indian agencies were not being subsidised by their government in order to undercut international competitors.

A cable tracking the negotiations in 2009 noted that:

“ISRO was keen to be able to launch U.S. commercial satellites, but expected its nascent system to be afforded flexibility with respect to the market principles outlined in the CSLA. ISRO opposed language in the draft CSLA text on distorting competition, transparency, and improper business practices, but agreed to propose some alternate wording after Bliss made clear that the USG would not allow commercial satellites to be licensed in the same way as non-commercial satellites … indicating that commercial satellites licenses would either be allowed through the completion of a CSLA or after a substantial period of time has passed to allow the USG to evaluate ISRO’s pricing practices and determine that they do not create market distortions.”

ISRO officials present at the discussion table on that day asked if the wording meant the US government was alleging that ISRO was unfairly undercutting prices (when it wasn’t), and if the CSLA was being drafted as a separate agreement from the TSA because it would allow the US government to include language that explicitly prevented the Indian government from subsidising PSLV launches. USTR officials countered that such language was used across all CSLAs and that it had nothing to do with how ISRO operated. (Interestingly, 2009 was also the year when SpaceX ditched its Falcon 1 rocket in favour of the bigger Falcon 9, opening up a gap in the market for a cheaper launcher – such as the PSLV.)

Nonetheless, the underlying suspicion persists to this day. In September 2015, the PSLV C-30 mission launchedASTROSAT and six foreign satellites – including four cubesats belonging to an American company named Spire Global. In February 2016, US Ambassador Richard Verma recalled the feat in a speech he delivered at a conference in New Delhi; the next day, the Federal Aviation Administration reiterated its stance that commercial satellites shouldn’t be launched aboard ISRO rockets until India had signed the CSLA. In response to this bipolar behaviour, one US official told Space News, “On the one hand, you have the policy, which no agency wants to take responsibility for but which remains the policy. On the other, government agencies are practically falling over themselves to grant waivers.” Then, in April, private spaceflight companies in the US called for a ban on using the PSLV for launching commercial satellites because they suspected the Indian government was subsidising launches.

A fork in the path

India also did not understand the need for the CSLA in the first place because any security issues would be resolved according to the terms of the TSA (signed in 2009). It wanted to be treated the way Japan or the European Union were: by being allowed to launch American satellites without the need for an agreement to do so. In fact, at the time of signing its agreement with Japan, Japan did not allow any private spaceflight entities to operate, and first considered legislation to that end for the first time in 2015. On both these counts, the USTR had argued that its agreement with India was much less proscriptive than the agreements it had struck with Russia and Ukraine, and that its need for an agreement at all was motivated by the need to specify ‘proper’ pricing practices given India’s space launches sector was ruled by a single parastatal organisation (ISRO) as well as to ensure that knowhow transferred to ISRO wouldn’t find its way to military use.

The first news of any organisation other than ISRO being allowed to launch rockets to space from within India also only emerged earlier this year, with incumbent chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar saying he hoped PSLV operations could be privatised – through an industrial consortium in which its commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, would have a part – by 2020 so the rockets could be used on at least 18 missions every year. The move could ease the way to a CSLA. However, no word has emerged on whether the prices of launches will be set to market rates in the US or if ISRO is considering an absolute firewall between its civilian and military programmes. Recently, a group of universities developed the IRNSS (later NAVIC), India’s own satellite navigation system, alongside ISRO, ostensibly for reducing the Indian armed forces’ dependence on the American GPS system; before that was the GSAT-6 mission in August 2015.

If it somehow becomes the case that ISRO doesn’t ever accede to the CSLA, then USTR doubts over its pricing practices will intensify and any commercial use of the Indian agency’s low-cost launchers by American firms could become stymied by the need for evermore clearances. At the same time, signing up to the CSLA will mean the imposition of some limits on what PSLV launches (with small, commercial American payloads) can be priced at. This may rob ISRO of its ability to use flexible pricing as a way of creating space for what is after all a “nascent” entity in global terms, besides becoming another instance of the US bullying a smaller player into working on its terms. However, either course means that ISRO will have to take a call about whether it still thinks of itself as vulnerable to getting “priced out” of the world market for commercial satellite launches or is now mature enough to play hardball with the US.

Special thanks to Prateep Basu.

The Wire
May 23, 2016