Before India Launched Its Mars Mission, There Was a Blessing from the Gods

You may have heard that, earlier this week, India launched a spacecraft that will soon be orbiting Mars (for a fraction of the cost it took American scientists, no less).

What you may not have heard is what the Indian Space Research Organization Chairman K Radhakrishnan did before the launch: he took miniature versions of the rocket and spacecraft to a local temple and asked the (idols of) deities for their blessings, saying later that “a little divine intervention” wouldn’t hurt.

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan holds a model of the Mars orbiter that may or may not have been blessed by the Gods (via Associated Press)

Cultural traditions aside, just imagine what it would look like if the head of NASA decided to go to church in the days before a rocket was set to launch so that he could ask Jesus for a little help.

You know, if you think your rocket — your pinnacle-of-scientific-achievement-rocket! — need supernatural help, maybe it’s time to double-check your calculations instead of speaking to the spirits.

Shrey Goyal is appalled by Radhakrishnan’s behavior:

… such irrational behaviour from the head of the Indian government’s primary space agency is unbelievably senseless… This is not just ignoring the spirit of enquiry, but outright denying and denouncing the scientific method. How does taking on such an ambitious project even make a difference in our technological prowess, if praying to our imaginary friends in space is seen as a reasonable precaution? When the agency which is supposed to be a temple of science and uphold the search for truth and new knowledge, is worshiping a Hindu deity in such a public manner, are we making any progress at all? We should all be thankful that a black cat did not cross the scientist’s path; otherwise the mission could very well have been postponed

Narendra Nayak, President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), added another important voice of dissent, referring to Article 51(A)(h) in the Indian Constitution which says it’s a duty of all Indian citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”:

“We strongly condemn the attitude of the Chairman of ISRO K Radhakrishnan who has insulted the Constitution of India by placing the replica of the satellite meant for the Mars mission at the feet of a deity at Tirupati. He is unfit to occupy the position of the head of the space mission and should be immediately sacked.

What may be even more disturbing is how relatively few people seem to care at all that Radhakrishnan asked the gods for help. This is just par for the course in a nation where superstition is so widespread.

This is why the work of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was so important. This is why the work of Sanal Edamaruku is still so vital.

It’s not just a frivolous pleasant tradition. It gives credit where it simply isn’t due. It shows a lack of confidence in the scientists who made the mission to Mars possible, as if they need some additional help to succeed. And if the head of the ISRO says he wouldn’t mind some “divine intervention,” what hope can we possibly have for those people in India who know far less about science?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.