Romancing the Moon

Today is the 40th anniversary of man's landing on moon. The heady days of that 1969 summer will be re-lived and reminisced (depending on people's involvement) by many. Justifiably, media outlets across the world have planned special features around this.

To commemorate this day, Nature today presents a report on a survey of 800 scientists on what they feel about manned missions to Moon, or space in general. What comes out strikingly clear -- though not surprising as we did hear this argument when Chandrayan-I was launched in October last year -- is that most scientists said they were inspired to take a career in science due to the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

I think human space flights give vicarious joy to even non-scientists, maybe due to the incredible "lightness of being" that comes from defying the laws of gravity. Or else, how would you justify the efforts, thrill, and business acumen that are going into space tourism?

As far as this survey goes, which was meant to capture the broad impressions of scientists, many felt that manned missions were a tad too expensive. "Nearly 80% of 800 researchers said they'd welcome a shift in spending from human spaceflight to unmanned space missions, whereas 70% would prefer some of that cash to be spent on other areas of scientific research."

No denying the fact that manned flights are expensive. NASA is expected to spend $9.7 billion in this fiscal on activities associated with human space flight, about half of the agency's budget of $18.7 billion. In contrast Europe is restrained, spending about 13% of its €3.6-billion budget on this.

Against this India's manned flight budget looks puny even after New Delhi increasing funds for human space flight initiatives almost five-fold - from $8.6 million last year to $47.4 million in the latest budget, announced last week. This, at least, will kick-start the research for the manned flight scheduled for 2020.

But the government is yet to formally approve $2.5 billion that ISRO has sought for the manned mission. Why? Is it such a humungous budget?

While I agree that many areas of research need money, I also believe that India needs Chandrayan-II to fire a whole generation's imagination for careers in science and technology.

If Sputnik and Apollo did that for the West, maybe Chandrayan I and II will do it for us. What do you think?

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