The Facebook page of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter mission had a little surprise for viewers yesterday. Mangalyaan, India’s Mars Orbiter, had sent its first image of Earth captured by its colour camera. It was indeed a special moment, made all the more poignant by the date of the event—November 21, 2013, fifty years to the day since the launch of India’s first rocket to space in 1963. That rocket itself was a symbol of sorts. The obvious symbolism was of India’s coming of age in an increasingly space-oriented world. But, more interestingly, the rocket also was seen to stand for India’s role in international relations—of bringing hostile powers together peacefully. Given the tensions of the Cold War, it seemed incredible that the US provided the rocket, the USSR provided the range clearance, and France contributed the sodium vapour payload for the mission. All the rocket scientists and payload engineers were Indian. The success of the launch surprised NASA, considering that the Indian facilities were far from high-tech at the time. Since then, ISRO has been making a habit of surprising the world. First, with its Chandrayaan mission, which was the cheapest successful probe launched to the moon—and which provided invaluable data to ISRO and NASA about the presence of water on Earth’s only natural satellite. And now, with Mangalyaan, the relatively cheap R450 crore mission to Mars, ISRO has further raised the bar for itself.
There’s still much for Mangalyaan to achieve before it can be deemed a complete success (it is still orbiting Earth, and will embark on its 300-day journey to Mars’ orbit on December 1). But there is no doubt that ISRO, over the last 50 years, has done India proud—and has permanently placed its name among the stars.