The New York Times recently highlighted some emerging Indian space startups with an online & print article. It was not only widely read—seeing that it’s published by one of the world’s most-consumed publications—but also widely shared by the startups mentioned in the piece and related folks from the Indian space communities. Maybe they were just happy that a mainstream western publication decided to spotlight their largely globally overlooked work, as am I, but it’s surprising no one showed disapproval at the article’s opening para:
When it launched its first rocket in 1963, India was a poor country pursuing the world’s most cutting-edge technology. That projectile, its nose cone wheeled to the launchpad by a bicycle, put a small payload 124 miles above the Earth. India was barely pretending to keep up with the United States and the Soviet Union.
What do you mean by India barely pretending to keep up? Even a simple check on ISRO’s Wikipedia page or the About page on ISRO’s website itself will tell you that India’s space program was founded first and foremost to advance the developing country’s civil life. In fact, Alex Travelli’s said statement for the New York Times (NYT) is diametrically opposite to how Vikram Sarabhai summarized in 1969 his efforts earlier that decade to convince the Indian government to start a national space program in earnest:
There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.
So while the US and the Soviet Union may be taking literal moonshots in the 1960s, it was clearly not a race India wanted to partake in, or even could.
In his own take on some (other) problems with the NYT article, Mukunth alludes to NYT’s distasteful cartoon published in 2014 on India’s Mangalyaan Mars orbiter, which the publication later ended up apologizing for because a “large number of readers” complained about it.
The trouble is NYT’s tone hasn’t changed substantially even as it covers successes of Indian space. When ISRO’s PSLV rocket launched 104 satellites in 2017, marking a world record at the time, NYT’s coverage of it read:
The Indian Space Research Organization has gained attention in recent years for staging successful missions at very low cost, in part because its scientists are paid less.
Sure, that ISRO scientists are paid less compared to NASA ones is a fact, and a sad one. But it’s not a fact unique to the space sector, much less to this particular launch or to ISRO’s planetary missions. Purchasing power parity should make major discrepancies in earnings between the two countries obvious. Instead, NYT could’ve also mentioned other reasons why ISRO’s workhorse PSLV was cost efficient for such commercial missions, at a time when the SpaceX Falcon 9 hadn’t yet gained its unmatched incredible momentum of today.
Circling back to NYT’s profile of some Indian space startups, there’s another such odd framing of words to be found:
For its first three decades, the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, the local version of NASA, made the country proud: An image of India’s first satellite graced the two-rupee note until 1995.
It’s hard to imagine that readers of NYT at large wouldn’t understand the term “national space agency”. Calling ISRO “the local version” of NASA again fails to highlight or even identify the contrasting reasons for which the two space agencies were not only created but how they evolved over their early years and decades.
The tone matters
It might seem to some that I’m nitpicking but consider that a renowned publication with their (outsized) influence forms, shapes, and bends people’s opinions at scale. It’s an ability the NYT must certainly be aware of. With the responsibility it brings, not only should they know better but be mindful of the impact of the reporting tone alone.
Lest you think I’m a nationalist, I implore you to think again: as an illustrative example, I’ve written the most critical piece on the lack of science from India’s Mars orbiter. In fact, therein lies another point the New York Times fails to understand. The globally popular narrative of India achieving all of its successes in space with “frugal” engineering is one the NYT also falsely accepts and amplifies, something recently illustrated by their coverage of Chandrayaan 3’s Moon landing success:
The country’s groundbreaking landing on Wednesday of a rover on the southern polar region of the moon was done with a space budget that was smaller than many other countries’ and a tiny fraction of NASA’s. […] ISRO still operates on an annual budget of only about $1.5 billion. NASA’s budget, for a much larger space program, is nearly $25 billion. India is so cost-effective that its spending of about $75 million on a Mars orbiter was less than the $100 million budget of the Hollywood space film “Gravity,” as Mr. Modi proudly has said.
While the NYT correctly highlighted ISRO’s tight budget—relative to NASA—generalizing Chandrayaan 3’s success to ISRO’s activities at large and contrasting them to the scale of NASA’s endeavors and operations is myopic. Yes, Chandrayaan 3’s landing was indeed spectacular, and something every Indian aware of it is undoubtedly proud of, but the forced “frugality” of ISRO’s or any such organization’s operations comes at a cost.
ISRO’s aspiring space science missions have been facing nothing but delays year after year due to budget shortages and overshadowing priorities. Chandrayaan 3 itself was a victim of the latter. Originally slated for launch in the first half of 2023, Chandrayaan 3 was robbed of its ride to space as ISRO prioritized two GSLV Mk III rockets for commercial OneWeb launches instead. India’s upcoming Venus orbiter Shukrayaan has been unable to secure a Mk III for launch because the vehicle will be busy serving Gaganyaan human spaceflight missions mid-decade. (Never mind that Gaganyaan itself is facing delays.) Shukrayaan’s mission designers thus had to look into choosing the Mk II, which other than inducing a launch delay is bound to reduce the orbiter’s capabilities as the Mk III is India’s most powerful rocket.
Accepting isolated frugal successes as ideal states of a country’s scientific being is not just wrong but dangerous. It instills, in a huge population, a false sense of wide-scale scientific achievement as well as conditions us to have subpar expectations from future missions. Mukunth breaks down more such problems with said NYT piece and its tone.
It baffles me that the New York Times, a publication capable of hiring reporters, writers, and freelancers dedicated to covering niche beats—and that too locally as needed—either cannot find anyone suitable enough to get the most basic facts about Indian space right or simply doesn’t care to.
P.S. I suppose my ability to get published on the New York Times someday might now be hampered by this blog post. So be it.