POWER IS AN EXHILARATION when nations master the mysteries of the universe. Every attempt in reaching out to the wonders clouded (literally) in shared imaginations is a measure of national ambition. Unlocking the secrets of stars is unravelling the fantasies that have been feeding our curiosity since the day we began holding the sky in our eyes. When metaphors that shone for so long on pages and screens become real after the joint pursuit of science and prayers, the moment, in our collective exclamation, makes the celestial compatible with the terrestrial. It is when the power of nations becomes a fairy tale translated by knowledge, as evocative as moondust suspended in suddenly shaken space.
On the evening of August 23, India was the sole protagonist of that fairy tale. In the final countdown of India’s moon mission, Chandrayaan-3, as a grainy image of what was so prosaically called the lander module descended to the lunar greyness that spread across every television screen in the country, a people’s anticipation ascended to catch up with the speed of science. When they, from the prime minister to the scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said those words, India is on the moon, it was as if those were words we thought, till August 22, existed only in our unrealised excitement. The image beamed from the destination may be less poetic than what we have seen and read but its raw realism has captured the enduring dreams of nations to conquer galaxies.
The moon is the nearest, and the most accessible, they can reach in the space journey. In the galactic hierarchy, the distinction it enjoys comes from its closeness to Earth and its sway over earthlings. As a satellite of Earth, it is only a secondary planet, and in size and distance, it is way inferior to the other characters in the solar drama. Man has not yet unlocked the secrets beneath its barren surface, but still, this airless object up there continues to influence poetics as well as geopolitics. As Roger Wray wrote in the Atlantic a hundred years ago: “The moon may be 600,000 times less brilliant than the sun. If so, it matters nothing. The vital difference between them is that the sun is epic while the moon is lyric… The sun gives light; the moon gives illusion. The sun gives so much light that there is little room left for imagination. We do not easily make legends about the sun; but the moon keeps alive that sense of the mystic…”
It keeps alive the quest that may be below an Icarus’ ambition—but avoids his fate. The erstwhile Soviet Union, as the fatherland of communism, may have failed spectacularly in building a heaven on Earth; but its determination to reach the heavens was truly spectacular. The Sputnik mission in 1957 not only set off the Star Wars; it brought an extra-terrestrial aura to the Cold War as well. In its second outing, Sputnik sent a stray dog into orbit, another show of ‘spacemanship’ in the clash between communism and capitalism. Laika the dog achieved interstellar martyrdom—and its master initial superiority over the ideological rival. America hit back in 1969 by sending a man to the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s first words upon putting his feet on the lunar surface, That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind, was most likely misheard in Moscow as a rebuke to a system that all along aspired to take the biggest leap for mankind. Most recently, the man who carries within him the extraterritorial as well as extra-terrestrial ambition of the Soviet empire had to watch his moon mission crashing, denying him a stellar victory at a time when his war against Ukraine was wearing him down.
The axis of space power has shifted, and India becomes the newest one with a dedicated place at the galactic high table, which may not look as otherworldly as a George Lucas production but, in terms of national frisson, it is something no Star Wars sequel can match. All the more when the prime minister, waving the Tricolour, says “the sky is not the limit.” India’s space odyssey takes a historical turn at a time when, up there, the competition is tougher, and the moon is just a waystation on the cosmic highway. And joining the race of nations are the so-called masters of the universe, and one of them, the richest on Earth, wants to be the most influential in space too. Even as Elon Musk works towards a habitable alternative to Earth and promises heavenly holidays, hundreds of his satellites crowd the orbit. Looks like fiction has exhausted the resources of science. Reality needs it more, and the demand, from nations and individuals flaunting celestial mandates, has grown astronomically high. The moonlight illuminates the planetary shift in power.