In India’s ambitious space odyssey, rocket science and spiritualism seem to be going hand-in-hand.

Bosses of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) seeking divine blessings, usually from Lord Venkateswara of Tirumala in Tirupati, is a well established tradition.

So, when the present ISRO Chairman, Kailasavadivoo Sivan, visited the Krishna Mutt in Udupi, Karnataka, last Sunday, when the countdown for the moon mission Chandrayaan-2 began, it surprised many.

According to a statement from the Palimar Mutt, Sivan and his family met the Paryaya Seer, Vidyadheesha Tirtha, and sought his blessings.

Toughest test

Chandrayaan-2 is ISRO’s toughest test, yet. Its GSLV MKIII rocket will launch the space probe on July 15 from the Satish Dhawan Space Port in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, and land on the Southern Polar region of the Lunar Surface on September 6. It is a site where no country has dared to land. Israel tried and failed in its mission a couple of months ago.

Questions have been raised in the past by the Rationalists Association on the practice of top scientists seeking divine blessings. Is it in keeping with the scientific temper?

Religious ritual

The practice is not just limited to the space establishment. The Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) also practises it, in a slightly different way, though.

Most often, before missile launches from the Wheeler Island, renamed after APJ Abdul Kalam, off the coast of Odisha, a short religious ritual is performed.

Even when Kalam headed the DRDO, this had been the practice. Space and defence scientists BusinessLine spoke to said the timing of a satellite launch or a missile test is obviously set based on scientific factors. No panchangam (almanac) or astrology is involved.

The scientists claimed that the small puja/ritual was only a way to focus on the tough task ahead where, despite all the meticulous planning, there is the possibility of an error creeping in any of the myriad operations, or a critical part malfunctioning.

‘Good luck peanuts’

Even NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have had a tradition of ‘good luck peanuts’ — that is, passing peanuts among the members of the Flight Operations Facility — since 1964.

This is to reduce the anxiety and stress in the operations room.

Visuals of past ISRO chairmen, especially G Madhavan Nair and RK Radhakrishnan, at the Tirumala shrine are familiar.

While Nair’s visit just before the Chandrayaan launch in 2008 raised a controversy, Radhakrishnan taking a model of the Mars Orbitter Mission (MoM) for divine blessings created a furore in 2013.

A two-decade tradition

Analysts and followers of India’s space programme say the ISRO chief or the top brass visiting Tirumala to offer prayers for the success of a mission is a tradition that is nearly two decades old.

Sivan reportedly told the media on March 18, 2018, after visiting Tirumala: “For the success of all upcoming missions of ISRO, I prayed to the Lord to bestow his divine blessings. Our target is to take ISRO to new heights.”

While some chairmen like Radhakrishnan and Nair led visits to Tirumala, with attendant media fanfare, others have done it on a low profile, without attracting any glare.

It is also routine for a number of scientists involved in the launch operations to visit a temple in Sullurpet, Nellore, near the SHAR space port, on the day of the launch.