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Why Is ISRO Reluctant to Share Details of the Chandrayaan 2 and 3 Missions?

Why Is ISRO Reluctant to Share Details of the Chandrayaan 2 and 3 Missions?

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ISRO chairman K. Sivan talking about the Chandrayaan 2 mission. Representative image. Photo: Twitter/@Chethan_Dash

  • ISRO has declined to share information about its Chandrayaan 2 and 3 missions citing exemptions under Section 8 of the RTI Act.
  • Commentators say its reaction to the queries reflect the organisation’s increasingly inaccessible nature.
  • The effort from ISRO seems to have been to hide its slow progress and poor performance under the garb of national security.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has replied to several queries by @frustratedpluto, submitted under the Right to Information Act 2005, with a standard template: “The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state/country.”

ISRO is a civilian space agency. It is funded by tax-payers’ money. It is responsible not only for delivering technical results, but also developing the scientific temper and the scientific curiosity of India’s citizens.

One of the simplest ways of doing this is to update the people about the progress of its various projects. Space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency have funds allocated for their scientists working on these projects to also engage with members of the public, through an outreach budget. ISRO only has a very poor public relations department.

During the ISRO spy case days, in the early 1990s, it was often said that ISRO was a civilian space agency and that it did not have any secrets. A cursory search of ISRO publications from a time before 2003 will give you all the technical details of most early ISRO projects of the kind asked for in the RTI reply.

An underdog’s success story in an environment of denial of technology made ISRO the darling of the people. Hence, early failures with the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) drew sharp criticism from the public. Expectations grew. ISRO could not keep up with them. It withdrew into a cocoon.

ISRO has always had leaders who accepted responsibility for failures. This has inspired project directors and others to work twice as hard to return to the launch pad with better results. This is how, for example, ISRO returned to the launch pad with a successful string of GSLV launches.

I believe that most of ISRO’s present predicament arises from setting unrealistic expectations.

When ISRO does not share information on its website but shares it at various events, all of which are not in the public domain, space enthusiasts like @frustratedpluto scour the internet for pictures, videos, presentations, papers and talks to get this information and share it with other space enthusiasts.

When such public information is not provided even on such fora, the RTI remains the only tool with which obtain this information from ISRO.

@frustratedpluto faced a lot of flak for this post, which is documented on Twitter replies and quote tweets. The effort from ISRO seems to have been to hide its slow progress and poor performance under the garb of national security. The effort of some Twitter users seems to have been to silence others through intimidation.

But underlining it all is the continued failure of ISRO to communicate its progress. This flows over into poor reporting by the media that does not put things into perspective.

This article was first published in the author’s newsletter and has been republished here with permission.

Pradeep Mohandas is a technical writer based in Pune. He is a space enthusiast.

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