Monday, July 15, 2024

Opinion | These unsung heroes took India to the moon

Opinion | These unsung heroes took India to the moon

India needs more heroes like Sreedhara Somanath than it needs entrepreneurs like Satya Nadella.

Did I hear you say, “Who?”

No offense to Nadella, the otherwise brilliant Hyderabad-born chief executive of Microsoft. But it’s the low-key Somanath, under whose leadership India achieved its historic moon landing, who should be a role model for Indians. He represents a generation of gifted scientists who chose not to emigrate — and achieved just as much, if not more, in challenging circumstances.

Somanath will never own a cricket team or show up on any Fortune or Forbes lists. He will probably never be called to dine at the White House. And he earns a fraction of what Indian Americans such as Nadella do. But spending just 30 percent more than Nadella’s annual salary, he took India to the moon.

At $74 million, India’s moon landing was an extraordinarily frugal project. It was cheaper than film projects such as “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” “Avengers: Endgame” or “Avatar: The Way of Water” and cost roughly half of the space epic “Interstellar.” The mission cost less than half of Russia’s South Pole Project (which crashed into the moon on Aug. 21), and less than a quarter of the projected cost of NASA’s own planned VIPER rover mission. And India spends only 0.04 percent of its gross domestic product on its space program, compared with the United States’ 0.28 percent, and Russia’s 0.15 percent.

In a media-saturated age, India’s hero scientists are self-deprecating and modest. The closest they have come to a big display of emotion is when the former chief of the moon mission collapsed in tears in the Indian prime minister’s arms after a previous attempt at a lunar landing narrowly failed.

“We once had to transport a communication satellite on a bullock cart,” Surendra Pal, a former director of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), said. “It cost us just 150 rupees.”

“We spend only on essentials. Our scientists put in more effort than any other scientists in any other company — in India or abroad,” Madhavan Nair, another former head of the ISRO, told me.

For the moon mission to succeed, everyone needed to put in extra hours. But the ISRO had no financial incentives to offer employees. “We cracked it by offering a free masala dosa and filter coffee at 5 p.m. every evening,” said Venkateshwara Sharma, a mission scientist. “Suddenly, everyone was happy to stay on longer.” Sharma himself found love at the ISRO: He married one of the key leads on the project.

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It’s difficult for non-Indians to appreciate how much the lunar landing has meant for national pride. In the past, India’s space aspirations have been mocked in Western media. The New York Times once ran a patently racist cartoon showing a farmer with a cow knocking on the door of a clubby lounge marked “Elite Space Club.” A BBC anchor once asked whether a country battling poverty, inequity and inadequate access to toilets should be pursuing space exploration at all. Such casual dismissiveness will no longer be possible.

The ISRO team has also shaken up hierarchies at home. Until now, India’s most famous global brand has arguably been the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). These are government-funded “centers of excellence” with notoriously stringent entrance requirements. But the moon landing team included an overwhelming number of graduates from lesser-known engineering institutes in India’s smaller cities. Several are from low-income households, and one is the son of a security guard and a woman who sells tea from a temporary stall.

The ISRO’s success has reignited the debate around “brain drain” in India. One-third of all IIT graduates leave the country to live and work abroad — most of them in the United States. Indians today are cheering on those who choose to stay and achieve miracles at home. Of course, none of this heady celebration should obscure the need to better compensate India’s public sector scientists. Today, as Nair told me, they are paid one-fifth as much as their global counterparts earn. Brain drain will continue until these kinds of incentive disparities are addressed.

But for a country that once ferried rocket cones on bicycles to see its lander on the south pole of the moon, this is a David-and-Goliath moment. The mission’s shining stars deserve special recognition for their success.

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