A Proud India Launches Its First Mission To the Moon

India's space program successfully launched its first lunar mission on Wednesday, joining what's shaping up as a 21st century space race with Chinese and Japanese crafts already in orbit around the moon. Video by AP

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 23, 2008

CHENNAI, India, Oct. 22 -- India began its first lunar mission on Wednesday, a moment of national pride that confirmed the country's place as an emerging power in the new Asian space race.

Through heavy morning clouds, the unmanned Chandrayaan-1 -- which means "moon craft" in Sanskrit -- was launched from the Sriharikota space center on an island in southern India, about 60 miles from Chennai.

"This is a historic moment for India," Indian Space Research Organization Chairman G. Madhavan Nair told crowds of clapping onlookers and reporters. "It's a remarkable moment to try to unravel the mysteries of the moon."

Only the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China have sent missions to the moon. China became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space in 2003 and last month achieved its first spacewalk. As a rival of China's, India wants to join the superpowers that have dominated space for more than 40 years and hopes to put two Indians into space by 2015.

"It's truly a moment of pride for every Indian, a real step forward for India," S. Satish, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, said in a recent interview. "Every common man in India will be able to benefit from the knowledge and pride we gain."

The two-year mission is aimed at laying the groundwork for further Indian space expeditions. The probe launched Wednesday will not land on the moon but will orbit it. The mission will create a three-dimensional map of the lunar surface, looking for traces of water, uranium and minerals.

The United States, which in 1969 became the first nation to send men to the moon, is providing two key mapping instruments for India's mission. One is the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M{+3}, which will obtain images of the mineral composition of the moon from orbit. The second will look for ice deposits, especially at the poles.

India on Wednesday was captivated by the launch, which was broadcast live. Schoolchildren attending the launch made toy satellites out of paper. Some teachers taught special classes on the launch.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the event was "a historic milestone in India's space program."

"Our scientific community has once again done the country proud, and the entire nation salutes them," Singh said.

India's previous satellite launches around Earth have helped predict weather patterns and pinpoint water and fishing resources.

In a country where half the population lives in poverty, critics said that India's $80 million moon orbit is a prestige project and that the country would be better off addressing more basic needs. "I don't mean to sound bitter, but why not spend money and attention on our Indians here on Earth?" said Nathan Singh, 40, who pointed to a flooded street studded with trash heaps. "We desperately need better roads, health and schools. We still have people in India who struggle to eat."

Previous satellite launches helped build more than 100,000 wells, Satish said. There is also hope that the moon mission will bring big business to India. Many countries are interested in India's ability to send up satellites for a relatively low price.

"It's possible to explore the front lines of technology while also ensuring our citizens have the basics," said Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "The problem is that in India, we haven't done the basics. And we must do both if pride is to mean more than just what's happening in space."

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