India's Going to the Moon and the Country Is Pumped

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NEW DELHI – It's 10 am on a muggy Delhi day, and it's time for space class.

Like so many other middle schoolers, Veronica Sodhi, a 12-year-old with big dreams, says space class is her favorite subject, but on Friday there was something even more special.

India is all set to send a robotic rover to rumble around the south pole of the moon, a huge leap forward for its space program. The rocket launches at 2:51 AM Monday and the anticipation is stoking national pride.

Indian children are sending good luck YouTube messages to the national space agency; V.I.P.’s are converging on the launch site in a remote coastal area near Chennai; the little six-wheeled rover is crawling across the front pages of all the newspapers; and telecasters are tapping the patriotism with special broadcasts on "India's Greatest Space Adventure."

At the K.R. Mangalam World School near New Delhi, a place for the children or the upper middle class – there's a roller rink on the ground floor – Veronica and her classmates were pumped.

"Children," Harjeet Kaur asked, the space class teacher, "why did we name this mission" Chandrayaan "?"

Veronica shot up from the desk so fast she nearly knocked over the chair behind her.

"Because-it-means-moon-and-vehicle," she said in one breath.

"Everybody clap for her," the teacher said. "Is there another country that has been sent to the moon's south pole?"

"No!" The students shouted back.

"We are all proud Indians, right, students?"

"Yes, ma'am."

“Really? I can't hear you. "

"YES, MA'AM!"

"It would be really cool to walk on the moon," Veronica whispered a little while later. “I mean, kind or like hiking but really cool. ”

A moon mission is a bold move for any country, but especially for one that has hundreds or millions of people still stuck in poverty.

But this is the puzzle of India. It is also a hotbed of modernity, a fount of scientific and engineering prowess. Its software developers are known as some of the world's greatest, every year its universities pump out thousands of highly talented scientists and engineers, experts in the most cutting-edge technologies.

Space suits it.

A big reason Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won a thumping re-election in May, is so popular that he has been pushing a brawnier, more assertive India, hungry to claim its place as a superpower.

Just weeks before the election ground— and commentators found the timing a little suspicious – Mr. Modi announced that India had just shot down a satellite whizzing 17,000 miles per hour 150 miles above Earth. Few countries can do that.

This isn't even India's first moon mission. In 2008, the landar probe Chandray on I didn’t land, but discovered water molecules on the moon.

The Indians wanted to launch two or three years ago, with a Russian robber, but when the Russians backed out they decided to build their own, which took some time.

The hardest part, everyone agrees, will be the soft landing. The plan is for a landing craft to lower itself from the orbiter and gently pop itself down on the powdery moon surface. Then the little six-wheel rover (which weighs about 60 pounds) will pop out.

“Nose cone. Body. Finnish."

"Everyone clap for Akshay," the teacher beamed. "Now do you want to make your own rockets?"

"Yes!" The class screamed.

"Sir will be giving you materials to make your own rocket," the teacher said, gesturing to a man with tattooed forearms deep in concentration in taping together little finnish – he was a Space India assistant.

All children dream of the stars. But in New Delhi, it's often hard to see any.

That's because the air pollution is so bad and the city lights are so bright. The result is a smudgy, opaque night sky.

"But up on the moon, it will be so beautiful," Veronica said, her eyes glowing with that special 12-year-old light. “It will be so dark and quiet. There will be so many stars. "

"I don't know why I've always had this interest in the moon," she said. “But I do. I want to be close to it, not on YouTube, not on the internet. I've always dreamed of being an astronaut. I want to make my India proud or me. "

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