Chandrayaan 2 shows India's potential, but we need to make it the 'Kennedy moment' for our engineering education

Shivaprasad Khened

Almost 50 years after the United States landed their famed Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the Moon (on 20 July 1969) and the subsequent small step that Neil Armstrong took on the surface of the Moon, giant opportunities for space exploration have come calling for humankind.

Despite the ship to mouth existence that India lived through, after the loot that the British left us at the time of our Independence, India has a homegrown space program that it reaps the benefits of. India is now all set to its own tryst with a Moon landing on its ambitious second Moon mission, Chandrayaan 2.

Chandrayaan 2 is a completely indigenous mission realised with heavy participation from the private sector at an estimated cost of Rs 603 cr for the spacecraft systems and Rs 375 cr for the launcher GSLV MK-III. It carries three primary payloads €" the orbiter, the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover. These payloads are designed to carry out experiments that include mapping the surface of Moon, minerals, chemical composition, detecting water molecules, and rock formations among others. From the time of liftoff, the mission is expected to take about 50 days to manoeuvre out of the Earth's orbit and into the Moon's before the Vikram Lander soft-lands on the south polar region of the Moon on 6 or 7 September.

A look at a few of the modules of the Chandrayaan2 spacecraft. Image credit: Tech2

A look at a few of the modules of the Chandrayaan2 spacecraft. Image credit: Tech2

The mission will be fully accomplished with the Pragyan rover traversing Moon's surface. Alongside the novelty and scientific feat, the Chandrayaan 2, Dr K Sivan, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), says, "Will foster a new age of discovery, increase our understanding of space, promote more global alliances, stimulate advancement of technology and grow commercial opportunities in India and inspire future generations". The mission will also showcase the soft power of Indian space prowess which is likely to spark unparalleled nationwide interest in science and technology.

Chandrayaan 2: A befitting centenary tribute to Dr Vikram Sarabhai

The success of Chandrayaan 2 will be a befitting centenary tribute to its founder, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who envisaged harnessing the power of space science to find solutions to the problems India was facing in the field of communication, meteorology and education.

Facing many triumphs and tribulations, true to Sarabhai's vision, ISRO has come a long way from a humble beginning of transporting space components on bullock carts, launching sounding rockets, starting Satellite Instruction Television Experiment (SITE) programme, to launching its first Aryabhata satellite (on board the Soviet launch vehicle) to the current era in which ISRO creates, builds and launches gigantic PSLV and GSLV rockets, which carry Indian and international payloads, satellites, and complex spacecraft. Projects like the Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan, built at frugal costs, not only exemplify indigenous excellence in space technologies but also kindle an outstanding sense of Indianness among the people and motivate youngsters to take to science.

The importance of historic missions like Chandrayaan 2 can best be juxtaposed and appreciated in Barack Obama's eponymous statement made to the National Academy of Sciences "The nation that out-educates us today will outcompete us tomorrow".

But then, is the Indian higher education system prepared for tomorrow?

Currently, perhaps not, if no course corrections are made.

Unfortunately, India's higher education system, particularly engineering education, is in a real crisis. It is disconnected with the needs and aspirations of the industry, society and nation. It appears to be short-sighted and inadequate in developing young engineers to be innovative to deal with current technological requirements of society. Yet, we have witnessed mushrooming of engineering colleges, especially in the last two or three decades. Every year an >estimated 1.5 million engineers pass out of engineering colleges. There is a major concern about the employability of these fresh engineers, particularly those passing out from the majority of colleges that have outdated curriculum, poor infrastructure and laboratory facilities and inadequately trained faculty. Even though there is such a serious crisis of employment for the engineers, yet the majority of Indian parents keep compelling their children to pursue engineering degrees.

Only a handful of students from top IITs, NITs and few other premier professional colleges, which are adequately equipped with requisite manpower, material and infrastructure, are trained to be successful in getting not just good jobs with excellent salaries, but few even manage to start their own enterprises. For most other fresh graduates, the story is dismal. Many engineers end up taking jobs that are unrelated to engineering. This is borne out from a 2014 McKinsey report, which says that >just a quarter of engineers in India were employable. There are other reports, which put this figure at less than 20 percent. A more recent article, >National Employability Report - Engineers 2016, by Aspiring Minds, states that nearly 80 percent of the engineers are unemployable even for a profile in the software services sector or sales engineering and only 6.5 percent and 3.67 percent are employable in core design engineering and software products respectively.

In the present competitive environment, generic skills and professionalism are essential qualities for engineering graduates. The industry requires up to date skill sets from engineering graduates to address their needs. Unfortunately, most of the colleges fail on this count. The quality of education in various institutes remains questionable, due to unprofessional, profit only approach of management.

Will Chandrayaan 2 be the 'Kennedy moment' for India?

In the current era of a knowledge society, if India has to find its rightful place in the world order, it must invest in vastly improving higher science and technical education and aim for achieving what is called a "Grey Revolution". This, besides addressing the needs of our industry, will also help in India's continuing success in the fields of space, and other frontiers of science research projects including the multimillion-dollar mega science international projects in which India is a partner.

This will also prepare our youngsters for mantling the future leadership of our country including premier scientific institutions like ISRO. Investment in higher education in science and engineering will also be a step in the right direction for preparing our younger generation to gear up to meet Prime Minister's ambitious vision of making India a $5 trillion economy by 2024.

President John F Kennedy, only four months in office, on 25 May 1961, proposed before a joint session of Congress that "this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth." Kennedy set out for this goal not because it was easy, but because it was expedient. The result is there for everyone to see. Not just did NASA succeed in achieving Kennedy's vision by landing man on the Moon on 20 July 1969, but ever since the monopoly of USSR first, was broken and there has never been a looking back for the USA.

The Silicon Valley €" the prime mover of the modern world, where innovation is a buzz word €" has been an outcome of such profound technological vision, which was shaped jointly by the US government and ably supported by the industry and the academia.

Will Chandrayaan 2 be the Kennedy moment for India? Let us hope it is.

The author is the Director, Nehru Science Centre

Also See: How does ISRO’s GSLV Mk-III fare against some of the world's most powerful rockets?

Chandrayaan 2 Vikram Lander: the vessel carrying the first rover from India to the Moon

Chandrayaan 2: Everything you need to know about the orbiter's mission and design

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