India’s lunar rocket blast off this morning from the balmy island shores in the Bay of Bengal is about a country asking for the moon – and getting it. To brush off those who wonder why India – the country with the world’s greatest number of poor people - is spending $86m on repeating what the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese and the Japanese have already done Indian space officials have talked of the holy grail of nuclear energy: fusion.
You see the moon has 5m tonnes of Helium 3 - which is the ideal fuel for nuclear fusion power. Fusion’s the next new, new nuclear thing. Indian officials will tell anyone who asks that fusion creates four times as much energy as boring old nuclear fission.
Although nuclear fusion can be best described as experimental, the technologists say it does not produce environmental problems like radioactive nuclear waste. The message is it is clean and green.
To create the right amount of anxiety at home, the space officials will point out that Indians must act before the Chinese do. You see the Chinese have already worked out that three space shuttle missions a year could bring enough Helium 3 for the whole planet. These are not outright lies - just calculations not grounded in reality.
Nuclear Fusion is the stuff that stars are made off. Basically it’s the energy released when two light atomic nuclei are smashed together to make a heavier one. All you need to do is heat gas up to the temperature of the centre of the sun and then design a material that can contain this superheated plasma and collect loads of neutrons.
Although the science was worked out in the 1940s fusion has led to the thermonuclear explosion and little else but a series of hugely expensive white elephants. The latest of which is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) – a $12bn project backed by the US, the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, India and South Korea. No surprise then that they all have eyes on the moon.
To sell a problem that has eluded science’s best brains for more than half a century as a solution smacks of desperation. India is a nation with a proliferating development needs – the global hunger index ranks it below Laos and Burkina Faso. Hundreds of millions of Indians still openly defecate in fields, at roadsides and beside train tracks. Common tropical diseases easily overwhelm the country’s poorly-funded public health system. Its roads, railways and airports all need money and managerial overhauls.
It’s not that India should not have a space programme. It should. To those who ask why bother to reach the moon, the answer is why did we bother to reach America. Human expansion is about expanding our capabilities. In that respect India is precocious - doing many things well ahead of what countries usually do at similar stages of development. But with precocity can come a hubris that is hard to shake off in later life. Perhaps the country would do well to direct some of its remarkable talents to the more obvious, acute problems it faces rather than inventing reasons to reach for the stars.