Science & Technology

If we can change our mindsets, let’s make a heaven here… Why go elsewhere?

Wing Commander (retired) Rakesh Sharma recently completed 35 years of being the first Indian to have ever set foot in space. He talked to Down To Earth about the exhilarating moment, space exploration, humans as multi-planetary species, ISRO’s plan to send a humanoid to space and weaponisation of space in a four-part series. Here is the fourth one:

By Rakesh Sharma
Published: Monday 22 April 2019

I think the Anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test should not be viewed through the prism of weaponisation as such. It’s a defensive weapon, meant to protect our assets which are already there. So in that sense, it is not directed.

It isn’t as if we have an orbiting capability to take out targets on the ground. No, we are not in that business. So this is a defensive weapon. We would have been much better off if conflict hadn’t gone to outer space. But, I think it’s only going to become worse if we do not address the core issues.

We must, as a people, as humanity, understand as to why we are in this mess. Our economic model being what it is — the quarter on quarter growth which fuels consumption, which in turn fuels negative environmental impact. If we do not alter those basics, no matter where we go, we are going to do what we have done on Earth. That is protectionism.

Each country which has the capability will want to take advantage of another which does not. Like in Antarctica you have drawn lines and said this is my territory. You go up on the moon first again you will draw the lines. So, if somebody else finds something more valuable it will become the seed of conflict which has moved from Earth to Space. So, we need to fix our basic societal paradigm first.

Of course there are United Nations treaties on the peaceful uses of outer space just as there has been the Paris accord, but then somebody like United States of America President Donald Trump comes along and pulls out of it. So, it all depends on whether the United Nations is going to be a body that can actually make a difference in the future.

I mean, the infrastructure is there. But then what you do if realisation is not there. So the realisation has to come from us. It cannot be imposed. The treaty says whatever you discover in space, belongs to humanity. The treaty says that likewise about the oceans. Beyond your economic zone whatever is there is supposed to be for everybody. But is it?

I mean, your oil companies are going out and you know, causing oil spills where everybody gets hurt as a result of it. I am sorry, but environmental crimes must invite punishment. We haven’t reached there yet. We don’t have the spine to do that. I think the environmental cost of producing must reflect in the price of that product. The realisation that nothing comes for free, that we are a closed loop environment and we need to take care of the only home we will ever have can’t come from outside. You can set up as many bodies as you want, but it has to come from within, from education.

Our mindsets have to change. And magazines such as Down To Earth could help in doing that.

As long as professionals keep going to space, they will try to do the best their profession demands of them. They are not going to be influencers. Yes, all of us astronauts have come back with a certain perspective, but we don’t make a difference to the politics of our individual countries.

Most of us give talks and share our experience. But as to how effective that is, I mean, we are so many billion people on this planet and there are only 500-plus astronauts up till now.

It’s going to take years before space flight becomes like civil aviation, and how many people will go? How will that sway the way they approach and perceive space? It will probably be as effective as poets writing about the Earth — people will look at it as entertainment. It doesn’t alter the mindsets of people.

I think the realisation can only come from within the home, education, school. Let us hope because this society needs to evolve, and how should a society evolve? What are the interventions required for that? Societal and behavioural scientists would probably be better equipped to answer that.

In terms of ethics, there is enough and more examples right here on Earth where we have defaulted on the wrong side of ethics.

This brings me back to living in harmony with nature —the nature over there (Mars) need not be the same as it exists here. So living in harmony is a concept, it’s an outlook.

If our mindsets have not changed, we are unlikely to behave differently. In fact if you remember when the early settlers went to America, it was the gun which spoke. So yeah, ethically that’s how it should be done but will it be done? I don’t know.

It will be done only if mindsets have changed. And if mindsets change, well then let’s make a heaven here itself. Why go elsewhere.

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