Tag Archives: nasa

Rapid Renewal

With the entire world seemingly off the highways and on WebEx or Zoom, I got to thinking if there is some good that will come out of this pandemic, a silver lining in the polluted clouds.  For those of you not feeling terribly hopeful right now, isn’t it wonderful to know that when there’s a burning platform in front of us, we will come together to take action?  It gives me hope around what we, 7.6 billion, can collectively do to turn the tide on climate change!

To be sure, these trying times of the coronavirus might reverse the progress made with controlling carbon dioxide emissions; but in the first quarter of 2020, global emissions were down considerably.  Like an overweight sick person who loses weight, at least we plump citizens of the earth now empirically know that we can do something to manage our over-consumption.  Here’s a somewhat optimistic article I wrote from a family trip last year to Kerala, India’s own version of paradise.

On a hopeful day after Christmas in Kochi, I am reflecting on what a solar eclipse means to me.  While I can focus on the darkness, given the many blessings that have come my way I prefer the light.  Perhaps it is merely the spirit of the season that has given me hope in what otherwise has been a rather dispiriting close to the past decade.  Or perhaps because, here in Kerala, I’m reminded of the diversity that has long been India’s strength.

This inclusive sense of all religions sharing India as a welcoming home is reflected in a favorite ditty of mine from Manmohan Desai’s film Amar Akbar Anthony:

Anhoni ko honi karde honi ko anhoni | We make the impossible possible and the possible impossible!

Ek jagah jab jama ho teeno | Together in one place, we three stand united:

Amar Akbar Anthony

This is the first time in nearly two decades that I have not spent Christmas Eve at the Stanford Theater on University Avenue in Palo Alto, California.  My family has made a tradition of going to see a film quite different from Amar Akbar Anthony, but one with a similarly hopeful heart: It’s A Wonderful Life, the holiday classic directed by Frank Capra.

My family missed seeing our favorite Christmas movie because we were in Cherai Beach, at a resort some 45 minutes north of Kerala’s Cochin International Airport (COK).  We were having a reunion of sorts, with family in India coming from Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Pune, and family from outside of India coming from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  It has been a time of great joy, but I find myself reflecting on the past “dumpster fire” of a decade. 

I’m usually a hopeful sort, but as I look back over the past ten years, the metaphor that haunts me is a heartless fire.  I smell this place that I call home burning. Home is Earth. Home is India. Home is America.

Our planet is literally on fire.  According to nasa.gov, “The world is getting warmer. Whether the cause is human activity or natural variability—and the preponderance of evidence says it’s humans—thermometer readings all around the world have risen steadily since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”  The website proceeds to ask (and then answer), “But why should we care about one degree of warming?” I think each of us must answer that question in our own way. 

Raj with his granddaughter, Eshni.

For me, it’s not just the Earth science, although that, too, is vitally important.  It is about the world that my granddaughter, Eshni, will inhabit long after I am gone.  Already, I am distraught about the fact that while she was in New Delhi, Eshni was smoking nearly 50 cigarettes each day.  Okay, my daughter and son-in-law’s nine-month-old baby wasn’t actually dragging on several packs of Marlboros or Charminars, but she might as well have been.  The smoke in the capital of the country of my birth is intolerable and getting worse. I can barely imagine what is worse than intolerable. Unlivable? 

And the United States is not much better.  Although we Americans don’t have the daily visual clues to tell us that our planet is burning, I, as a Californian, can attest to the fact that the blue sky is a false harbinger of things to come if we don’t manage the change of climate change.  For two weeks last year, I could not step out of my home without tearing up. Yes, I’m an emotional sort who is easily moved to tears in sentimental Bollywood and Hollywood movies. But these weren’t filmy tears. No, the sun in my gray sky was eclipsed by smoke from fires burning thousands of acres over 100 miles away.  The sting of the smoke caused the tears and required me to wear a mask so that I could breathe. And if we can’t breathe, our world becomes unlivable, acre-by-acre. California’s thousands of charred acres have now given way to Australia’s millions of scarred acres. I take in the smoky air and choke at the impossibility of doing anything substantial about climate change.

When troubled by national and international issues, I look to good governance to save the day.  Surely the United Nations or the Prime Minister of India or the President of the United States have the foresight to envision a world that is habitable for my little Eshni.  Hooray for the UN. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has a fine objective to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  If this were baseball, I would be shouting, “Hip, hip, hooray! Let’s put the UN Secretary-General into the Hall of Fame!” I would throw a parade for our collective grandchildren’s happy future world. Well, it seems that the UN does throw parties of a sort.  Year after year since 1995, there has been a Conference of the Parties. And year after year, the climate gets hotter and hotter. Protocols such as the Paris Agreement are ratified and rejected by the countries I call my own.

America and India’s positions on the protocols are quite telling and put one nation firmly in a disquieting Hall of Shame and the other in a disorienting Hall of Mirrors.

Trump’s United States is a rejecter of the protocols. Modi’s India is ostensibly a supporter. Both Trump and Modi remind me of those afflicted with the disease of hubris that has them looking directly at a solar eclipse as if their retinas could withstand fire.

In his first year in office, President Trump said, “The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy,” and “puts (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage.”  Donald Trump moved the needle from intolerable and unlivable to unthinkable. Midway through Trump’s term, The Atlantic Monthly listed some 50 unthinkable acts that characterized the Trump Presidency.  In essence, while the earth burns, Trump fiddles on his many incendiary interests including the following from the past 12 months:  building a wall at the US/Mexican border, adding trillions to the fiscal deficit, overseeing a contraction of domestic manufacturing, threatening and waffling on tariffs, recklessly executing an unethical—if not illegal—assassination of a foreign official to gin up a war to win votes, and responding to the inquiry of impeachment with a multitude of distracting lies.

On paper, Prime Minister Modi is the anti-Trump, almost an exemplar of climate change leadership.  He has done much to champion India as a global green leader; indeed, one can see solar panels floating on acres around COK, making Kochi’s airport the first in the world running fully on solar power.  But despite his laudable renewable energy investments in solar and wind farms, the Prime Minister was a reluctant signatory to the Paris Agreement; he has argued that as a developing country focused on giving her citizens a better life, India must not be constrained from investing in coal and other dirty fossil fuels.  There is much truth to the position that emerging economies merit dispensations not afforded to countries, which developed during the Industrial Age’s plunder of the Earth, but one must ask questions about Narendra Modi’s commitment to giving all Indians a better life.

What is the Prime Minister’s philosophy of social justice?  What are his intentions to make India not only a global green leader but also a moral leader?  Why does his office in Delhi encourage policies that are Hindu-centric rather than Hindustan-centric?  Perhaps the Modi Ministry could benefit from a rereading of Section 420 in the Indian Penal Code to clarify its disambiguation in how Muslims are treated as a source of terror. Certainly, a unified India would be more influential on the world stage if her fissiparous tendencies did not distract from the real terror of global warming.

Imagine an Earth with the blood-red skies of Australia where people flee to beaches to escape bushfires racing towards the coast. In Kerala, my hope is that we are not required to retire to backwaters houseboats to escape the fires of climate change; my hope is that we are not all sidetracked by our “Distractors-in-Chief;” my hope is that with a Surya Namaskar, we salute the sun as it rises; my hope is that hope is not eclipsed. 

While it has been lovely to celebrate time with family on the tranquil waters in what Keralites call “God’s Own Country,” inevitably all of us want to return to our wonderful lives in Pune, Melbourne, London, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and California. None of us desire a world where we, or our brothers and sisters, are climate refugees, or refugees of any sort seeking to escape home due to persecution of our race, religion, or sexual identity.  How about we convey our belief in the art of possibility and translate “Amar Akbar Anthony” for the next generation of (grand) children making Planet Earth their home?

We make the impossible possible and the possible impossible!

Together in one place, we three stand united:

Eshni, Ayesha, Emily.

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, a Change Management Consultant, envisions 2020 as a transformative year.  His vision: Replace shortsighted politicians with clear-eyed leaders like Greta Thunberg (climate strike activist and Time’s 2019 Person of the Year) and Varshini Prakash (challenger of climate change’s status quo and Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement).


Featured image drawn by Mangla Oza.

Next Space Race Won’t Have Just One Winner

Until Jan. 3, no human being had ever set eyes on the “dark side” of the moon — the side always facing away from the Earth. It was a mystery. But no longer. China’s National Space Administration successfully landed a lunar lander, Chang’e-4, at South Pole-Aitken, the moon’s largest and deepest basin. Its lunar rover Yutu-2 is sending home dozens of pictures so that we can see the soil, rocks, and craters for ourselves. Seeds it took on the journey also germinated (before freezing to death), making this the first time any biological matter from Earth has been cultivated on the moon.

Scientists had long speculated about the existence of water on the moon — which would be necessary to grow crops and build settlements. India’s Chandrayaan-1 satellite confirmed a decade ago that there was water in the moon’s exosphere, and in August 2018, it helped NASA find water ice on the surface of the darkest and coldest parts of its polar regions.

India’s Mangalyaan satellite went even further, to Mars, in 2014, and is sending back stunning images. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a manned mission to space by 2022, and one Indian startup, Team Indus, already has built a lunar rover that can help with the exploration.

The Americans and Soviets may have started the space race in their quest for global domination, but China, India, Japan, and others have joined it. The most interesting entrants are entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Team Indus’ Rahul Narayan. They are space explorers like the ones we know from science fiction, driven by ego, curiosity, and desire to make an impact on humanity. Technology has leveled the playing field so that even startups can compete and collaborate with governments.

In the 50 years since the Apollo 8 crew became the first to go round the moon and return, the exponential advance of technology has dramatically lowered the entry barriers. The accelerometers, gyroscopes, and precision navigation systems that cost millions and were national secrets are now available for a few cents on Alibaba. These are what enable the functioning of Google maps and Apple health apps — and make space travel possible.

The NASA space shuttle program cost about $209 billion over its lifetime and made a total of 135 flights, costing an average per launch of nearly $1.6 billion. Its single-use rockets were priced in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Musk’s company SpaceX now offers launch services for $62 million for its reusable Falcon 9 rockets, which can carry a load of 4,020 kg. And yes, discounts are available for bulk. Team Indus built their lunar rover with only $35 million of funding and a team of rag-tag engineers in Bangalore.

NASA catalyzed the creation of technologies as diverse as home insulation, miniature cameras, CAT scans, LEDs, landmine removal, athletic shoes, foil blankets, water-purification technology, ear thermometers, memory foam, freeze-dried food, and baby formulas. We can expect the new forays into space to yield even more. The opportunities are endless: biological experimentation, resource extraction, figuring out how to live on other planets, space travel, and tourism. The technologies will include next-generation nano satellites, image sensors, GPS, communication networks, and a host of innovations we haven’t conceived of yet. We can also expect to be manufacturing in space and 3D-printing buildings for space colonies.

Developments on each of these frontiers will provide new insights and innovations for life on Earth. Learning about growing plants on the moon can help us to grow plants in difficult conditions on this planet. The buildings NASA creates for Mars will be a model for housing in extreme climates.

As with every technology advance, there are also new fears and risks. Next-generation imagery can provide military advantages through intelligence gathering. The military already has an uncanny ability to track specific people and watch them in incredible detail. For any sort of space station or base on another planet or moon, there is the question of who sets the rules, standards, and language that’s used in outer space. Then there’s the larger question of whose ethical and social values will guide the space communities of the future — and the even larger question of whether places beyond Earth are ethically claimable as property at all.

Regardless of the risks, the era of space exploration has begun and we can expect many exciting breakthroughs. We can also start dreaming about the places we want to visit in the heavens.


Vivek Wadhwa is the author of “Driver in the Driverless Car,” which explores how we can create the amazing future of Star Trek. And he is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon Engineering at Silicon Valley and Harvard Law School.

Making America Great Again?

Every year NASA celebrates its past glory by inducting an ever-dwindling number of American astronauts to the Hall of Fame at a glittering gala. I had the opportunity to attend the latest one on April 21, 2018 at the Kennedy Space Center, courtesy of Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturing company. I was also very fortunate to be seated next to Kent “Rommel” Rominger who has logged over 1,600 hours in space shuttle missions.

Growing up in India, in high school and in engineering college, I was captivated by the space missions of American and Soviet astronauts. I would devour  any news, any book, that I could lay my hands on, in those dark days without the internet. Alan Shepard, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Valentina Tereshkova, Neil Armstrong and all the Mercury, Vostok, Gemini, Voskhod, Apollo and Soyuz astronauts were my heroes.

Imagine my excitement when I found myself sitting below that massive Saturn-V rocket and dining with these brave hearts! I was ecstatic.

But I was also sad!

NASA was once the crown jewel of America, and Florida was the proud home of this space giant. From halfway around the globe I knew of Florida only because of NASA, not because it had beaches, was home to Disney World or was a great place to live post-retirement.

Florida  was the home of the world’s premium space research agency that  enriched our lives: from the stickiest Velcro to high technology that eventually fueled the Internet. NASA helped create the demand for high technology to solve problems they faced in space, thus fueling development of new materials and processes. Development in rocket science was directly applicable in defense. And, it provided economic stimulus for Melbourne, FL  and the cities and towns around it. California and Florida were the two states in America which were identified as the home of aerospace research and technology.

Came the 1980s and they killed the space program. Beginning with the Reagan administration, all successive administrations in Washington had enough of this “white elephant” that was spending millions of taxpayer dollars to send one person in space and doing nothing for recession-hit America.

Such was, and is, the myopia of the political leadership of the right and left that they refused to continue with the funding of NASA and keep up the work it was doing to make, umm…America Great.

Disintegration of the USSR took away another incentive of keeping pace with the enemy. Immediately, the economy of the region tanked. The wise men and women making those policies didn’t realize the long term effect of this decision. Subsequently they spent a good amount of the same “saved” dollars to prop up the economy of the region. They offered incentives to bring in manufacturers to revive the economy and it did, to some extent. But they couldn’t bring the glamor, the status, the brand name it once enjoyed.

America stopped on its tracks before finishing the race. It became complacent after its nearest overseas rival folded. It didn’t see the distant rival that was catching up fast. China was already close.

It was said in the 19th and 20th centuries that whoever controlled the oceans, ruled the world. The British built an empire that the Sun didn’t set in, until they ceded the supremacy at seas to US and USSR.

In 21st century, whoever controls the space will rule the world. Does this world want to be led by values which don’t include respect for fundamental human rights? I doubt it.

Unless America converts this “stop” in space exploration to a temporary “pause” and resumes the race, it has no chance of gaining the leadership position it once enjoyed.

Wake up America!

The next time somebody tells you that he or she will make America Great, please ask a simple but pointed question: Will it be done by digging coal or sending American men and women to Mars?