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What purpose will Modi's promise to put an Indian in space by 2022 serve?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the moon to the people during his Independence Day speech on Wednesday. Well, almost: what he said was that India would put an Indian in space by 2022. This announcement was greeted with general acclaim by the people and the press as an advancement of India's space programme. Later, in a press conference, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) Chairman K Sivan confessed that he and his colleagues were surprised by this deadline, but claimed that it was possible to meet it. The project will cost a total of Rs 100 billion, more than Isro's current operational budget. While the plan to promote science and technology is unexceptionable, one wonders what purpose it will finally serve.

No matter what else they may claim to have achieved, Modi and his party cannot promote themselves as great advocates of science or scientific thought. In 2014, a few months after coming to power, Modi gave the example of elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh, to argue that there was plastic surgery in ancient India. The Guardian report quoted him: "We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant's head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery." He is not alone in making such claims. 

His Minister for Higher Education Satyapal Singh, who has a degree in chemistry from Delhi University, claimed earlier this year, "I have a list of around 10 to 15 great scientists of the world who have said there is no evidence to prove that the theory of evolution is correct." Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb, who has earned some fame for making faux pas, declared in April this year that internet existed during the age of Mahabharata. The Economic Times quoted him: "In Mahabharata, Sanjay was blind but he narrated what was happening in the battlefield to Dhritarashtra anyway. This was due to internet and technology. Satellite also existed during that period." 

While thinking of what to write for the column this week, I watched one of my favourite horror films, The Shining (1980). Now, this film, directed by Stanley Kubrick and adapted from Stephen King's eponymous novel, has spun numerous conspiracy theories, none of which are more entertaining than the one which links it to the Apollo 11 moon landing. The conspiracy theory claims that Kubrick had been hired by NASA to film the footage, starring Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, which was used to prove the moon landing. In other words, there was no moon landing in 1969; it was a hoax the US pulled off at the height of the Cold War and their one-upmanship with the USSR in the space race. Later, Kubrick made The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, as a confession about the alleged faked moon landing, according to these conspiracy theories.  

Conspiracy theorists claim to see a number of signs that betray Kubrick's confession. For instance, the haunted room in the Overlook hotel: In King's novel, the number of the room is 217, but in Kubrick's movie, it is changed to 237. Why? Apparently, because the distance between the earth and the moon is 237,000 miles (Actually, it is 238,857 miles, but that's close enough, right?). Kubrick has a more pragmatic reason. Asked by film critic Michel Ciment why he changed the number of the room, the director said Timberline Lodge, where the exterior of the film was shot, had a room 217, and the proprietors feared that guests might not want to stay in it after watching the film. 

But, that's not all. The son of Nicholson's character (Jack Torrance), Danny, roams around the maze-like corridors of the Overlook hotel, where Torrance is a winter caretaker, on his bike wearing a sweater with an Apollo 11 pattern sewn on it. There is still more: King's novel has only one girl who was hacked to death, but in The Shining, Danny sees twin sisters. Those with a fertile imagination claim it is a nod of the hat to NASA's earlier space programme Gemini (twins, get it?). Kubrick has, of course, never accepted such claims, and there is some speculation that his extraordinary 1968 epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, had sparked such outrageous theories. 

Of course, The Shining and the conspiracy theories surrounding it have nothing to do with India's space programme. Space, of course, has a lot to offer to India, especially in the field of communication and defence, but sending a man to a low-Earth orbit is hardly what the doctor would recommend. In the end, it might prove to be only a hell of an expensive ego massage for the nation. When former US president John F Kennedy made his famous "We choose to go to the moon" speech, he faced a plethora of earthly problems — an escalating Cold War, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Soviets being way ahead in their space programmes. For Modi, the project of putting a man in space serves as a nice symbol of the country's scientific progress, especially a few months before he faces elections. One wonders if the government or Isro have thought what will happen after that — a concrete plan is still to be made public.