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India became the first country to land a spacecraft near the moon's south pole

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One common signal of a rising nation is a moonshot. The United States put people on the moon during the Cold War. Now, that exact thing has not happened since, but China has sent spacecraft there. And now India has accomplished something that no other country has done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SREEDHARA PANICKER SOMANATH: Soft landing on the moon. India is on the moon.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: It successfully landed a spacecraft near the moon's south pole, a largely uncharted region. Let's talk this over with Jill Stuart, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics who specializes in the politics and ethics of space exploration. Welcome to the program.

JILL STUART: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What did you think about as you observed this news?

STUART: I have to say, I usually try to stay kind of objective, but I felt quite excited watching the celebrations. And I think this is a really big step for the Indian space program.

INSKEEP: And why so?

STUART: Because this is the first time that we have landed on the south pole. A lot of countries have what we call remotely delivered objects onto the moon, essentially crash them into the moon. But there's another technical capability when you do a soft landing. And it's also big news for science. We should be able to learn things about, for example, whether or not there's water on the moon in substantial sources that could sustain future missions there.

INSKEEP: I like the use of we as you said it there. We have landed on the south pole. You mean we as human beings. You're not speaking as a nationalist there, but as a person.

STUART: I do, actually. And that was a slip of the tongue, really, because this is an achievement for India. But I think that's one of the interesting things about space, is that it taps into these two sides of our sort of humanity, this sense of our collectiveness. But also there's a really underbelly of politics and nationalism. And India certainly will be using this for propaganda purposes. Countries always do that with space exploration programs. Of course, we had Russia crash on the south pole of the moon last week, and so there are definitely political implications. But I think we can also see it as more of a collective scientific progress at the same time. There's a tension there, which is interesting.

INSKEEP: Was there something of a rivalry to be the first on the south pole then?

STUART: I think absolutely so. So Russia's program was in planning stages for years. So there was a much longer timeline. And I think it's interesting that once India was imminently going to be landing, Russia then put their probe up, which was on a much faster time scale. Theirs only took a week to get there, but it meant that they were overlapping, potentially within days or even hours, to land in a similar part of the moon. So I think you can't deny that there was at least some level of rivalry there.

INSKEEP: So the Indians ended up with the more successful landing. Do they have plans to follow this up by sending people into space?

STUART: Eventually, yes. I think India would very much like to become one of the even more elite group of countries that have placed humans in Earth. There is kind of a scale of countries' abilities in space, and they do have plans to join that group.

INSKEEP: Does it really show, when you succeed in space exploration, that you are a technologically advanced nation?

STUART: I think so. Countries have long used it for that reason, and that's because it demonstrates that you have a strong economy, that you have a strong political capabilities. And all of the technology that we have up there has a military subtext. So rockets that carry satellites could carry missiles. And it is very difficult. We can see that through failed missions, such as - even Russia, that has a lot of experience in this, had a crash last week. So, yes, the technology really is that difficult.

INSKEEP: Jill Stuart, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, thank you so much.

STUART: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARRON'S "STAIRS TO STARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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