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'Think beyond our planet'
M D Riti in Bangalore |
June 26, 2004 03:19 IST
"Did you say your name was Lee Morin?" demanded president Abdul J Kalam, looking piercingly from a large screen into the eyes of an American government official. "You are an astronaut, aren't you?"
"Yes sir, I am," said Morin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Science in the US State department, looking taken aback.
"Whenever I visit schools in rural areas, lots of children, especially girls, tell me they want to become astronauts," remarked Kalam. "I am happy to be talking to an astronaut like you."
He then went on to answer Morin's carefully rehearsed question on the use of satellites in telemedicine in rural India.
"We have 700 million people in villages in India. We must increase the bandwidth of our satellites to give them proper connectivity. We must go up to at least 95 megahertz."
Kalam electrified the atmosphere at the India-US Space Science and Commerce conference, being held at a five-star hotel in Bangalore, with his presentation from Delhi on Friday afternoon.
He interacted with the delegates via videoconferencing. When he looked directly into the eyes of the audience and spoke with his characteristic informality, it would not have occurred to many that he was seated in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
"Your name is Rosalyn, eh," he asked a senior American academic before proceeding to answer her question about how Indian villages could be connected by telemedicine. "Cost is the problem in telemedicine. You cannot use fibre optic cable to connect all the centres."
He deviated easily and often from the prepared text of his speech, sometimes with almost embarrassing honesty. Like on the subject of India's launch vehicle technology. "But that's a subject that's taboo for this conference, right?"
Indian Space Research Organisation Satellite Centre (ISAC) director P S Goel replied: "You were perfectly right when you pointed out that we were told not to discuss low cost space access. But we have discussed a wealth of other subjects related to space."
Low cost space access, Kalam said, was the most important need of the present times. "The cost of access to space must be reduced by one or two orders of magnitude. India is now able to put just 3-5 tonnes of payload into low Earth orbit. We need to be able to put 100 tonnes.
"If we want to compete with other space-faring nations, we too must be able to send large payloads to Mars and the Moon. To achieve that, the payload must constitute about 12-15% of the weight at takeoff. Now, it is just 3-5%!"
Two rapidly evolving technologies are helping India's move in this direction. "One is the reusable launcher, with multiple launching capability, and the other is nano technology. Air breathing propulsion systems could hold the key to a whole revolution in space transport."
He did not focus entirely on the invariably exciting business of space exploration, but also on the 'six billion poor people on this earth, a majority of whom don't even have drinking water'.
"Two big democracies, like India and the US, must plan how we can bring peace and development to these people. The man-planet conflict should be reduced. The societal missions of the world should be taken up on a war footing."
His five-point space mission for Indian and American space scientists to jointly pursue:
1. Bring down the cost per kg launch of payload
2. Bring down spacecraft weight
3. Exploring space and mining minerals
4. Predict earthquakes
5. Provide drinking water, shelter, food, healthcare and education to the have-nots
Kalam gave the scientists just a decade to develop the capability to anticipate an earthquake at least a week before it happened, just like in the case of cyclones.
However, he did not just stop at setting out targets but also suggested means to achieve them.
For example, he said that using reusable technology could reduce payload cost. Spacecraft weight, he said, can be brought down by using nano technology in composite structures, electronics, computing and protective coating.
By 2020, he wanted the scientists to produce space aeroplanes and reusable launch vehicles that could lift heavy satellites into space. By 2030, they should have begun work on space manufacturing. By 2040, they should start extra terrestrial mining and by 2050, space habitats should be in place on Mars.
"I visualize, in 2050, an Indo-US team establishing a habitat in Mars, establishing mining industrial units in space and working on a joint program to destroy or deviate asteroids which endanger Earth. We will have a beautiful voyage together, India and the US; friends, are you ready for it?"
He used slides to explain some of his ideas to the scientists. One of them was of a drawing of a multipurpose aerospace vehicle (hyper plane). This aircraft would lift off from conventional runways and could be used more than 100 times. It would carry five times the payload of current launch vehicles but at just 1/50th of the cost.
"Think beyond our planet," he urged the assembled scientists. "The thought itself elevates a person, and puts him in a creative state. Creativity in turn leads to foundation and discovery."
Kalam's was undoubtedly the most inspirational interaction at the conference, as he clearly articulated his view on the direction space research should take over the next half century. Not only that, he gave the gathering a month's time to revert back to him with their comments.
"Think July 25, 2004," he urged them with a typical wide grin. "And get back to me through my website." Goel aptly summed up the effect Kalam's presentation had on the gathering. "Your virtual presence has been very exciting and inspiring," he told the President.