It means moon-craft in Sanskrit. India just launched Chandrayaan2 into space. Fifty years after America’s Apollo triumph the world’s second-most populous country is on a mission to the moon. Their plan is to put a lander—Vikram—near the lunar south pole.

There are no astronauts. This is the smart way to explore space. Humans need too much air, water, and food. And they have to deal with hygiene, waste disposal, and safety while performing high-level tasks in zero-g. Astronauts are a lot more dramatic. Those missions make for better stories, but they come with considerable risk. The US Shuttle program lost two entire crews, not to mention the orbiters themselves, in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. One was during a launch, the other during re-entry.

No, humans in space is mostly for propaganda value. The Cold War gave the US a powerful incentive to flash our astronautical muscles. That’s not to say that one day humans won’t be living in space. I do think the sci-fi trope of orbital colonies will come true. Getting a rocket up to a low-earth orbit is a well-established, robust technology. Payload is the limiting factor. The Saturn V that Apollo needed is still the biggest launcher ever. All that survival gear is heavy, and the moon landing was the ultimate wilderness backpacking adventure.

Orbital habitats would require regular cargo runs to sustain them but could mostly operate on solar panels. The ISS proved that. You’d have to be rich, though. It’s no coincidence that space travel is now the purview of billionaires. Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk can afford to have expensive hobbies. It’s hard to tell whether the spaceflight companies these guys own make money, so I’m not sure whether they are businesses or not!

I’m a big fan of spaceflight so I have no beef with these goofy celebrities chasing their dreams. Hey, that’s capitalism. But I think publicly-funded space exploration should rely primarily on computers and robots. It’s just too damn expensive. Hell, it’s expensive—in fuel as well as funds—just to maintain earth-orbiting satellites, and we are completely dependent on those.

India already has a human spaceflight program going, it is called Gaganyaan (sky-vehicle) and the plan is to have three people in orbit by December 2021.

I wish ’em luck.

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