Sunday, 11 April, 2021

Thousands of Nepalis register for civilian mission to moon


By Shaurya Khatri
Kathmandu, Mar. 5: What would it be like to view planet earth from space? Or to fly by the moon seeing its craters and cracks up-close for the first time?
So far, only a handful of astronauts and scientists have experienced such wonders in real life. But come 2023, few extremely fortunate commoners might be able to boast their own space-voyage stories.
On March 3, Japanese billionaire and fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa launched an open competition for eight available seats aboard the SpaceX’s Starship to accompany him on the first commercial, civilian space flight around the moon.
According to Maezawa’s official Twitter post, applications have been pouring in from over 216 countries with India ranking at the top spot, followed by Japan and the USA. So far, the selection criteria are vague, but the website mentions that it will be a five-step process involving an assignment, interview, and medical check, among others. The initial registration deadline is March 14.
The DearMoon campaign has caught the fancy of Nepali astronomy enthusiasts as well. Suresh Bhattarai, Astrophysicist and Chairperson of NASO, was among the first 500 Nepalis to register. Although ecstatic over being part of a history where open applications are invited for a six-day lunar flyby, Bhattarai has been a little disappointed with a lack of enthusiasm among Nepalis to participate.
As of March 4, 3:02 pm, 2,347 people have signed up for the campaign -- a number which Bhattarai isn’t too proud of. “Just imagine how wonderful it would be to have a Nepali aboard the ship to the moon. But many people I have talked to seem indifferent,” he said.
This isn’t, however, the first time that Nepali youths have shown a lack of interest in space exploration. Back in 2017, according to Bhattarai, NASO had signed an MoU with Terraztra Space Exploration to announce Project Terranaut, a global initiative outreach competition. The contest allowed for any top three scorers from Nepal to train like Yuri Gagarin of Russia while also providing an opportunity for the best performer to explore the ‘Edge of the Space’ via the Mig-29 fighter jet.
“The participation was sparse, as a result of which we couldn’t achieve the desired result,” informed Bhattarai.
But he believes the DearMoon campaign to be a more enthralling opportunity. “More Nepalis applying will increase the probability of winning,” exclaimed Bhattarai.
Echoing Chairperson Bhattarai’s sentiments, Rishi Shah, often dubbed as the father of observational astronomy, also encourages young Nepalis to apply. But Shah himself hasn’t registered yet. “I am too old for space adventures. I wouldn’t want to steal a spot of someone new, and young,” he stated, adding that the odds of being selected are extremely slim, literally.
However, Shah has his reservations about the campaign. According to him, the DearMoon project is being spearheaded by an entrepreneur who is known for his impulsive decisions. In January 2020, Maezawa said he would take part in a reality TV show to find a girlfriend to accompany him on the trip, only to abandon the idea later. Likewise, in 2018, he had first announced to take only artists with him along the journey. “What he is doing for humankind is most assuredly commendable. But space science should be taken seriously. I will be happy if the project comes to fruition. Even more so if a Nepali gets a berth,” he added.
Neha Giri, 25, of Gaushala, Kathmandu, who is currently working in central operation for Global IME Bank, has already completed the initial pre-registration for the campaign. While she realises that space flight is a fearsome venture, she doesn’t want to miss out on the chance. When asked as to why she was so keen on the DearMoon project, she replied: “Because, I would finally be able to prove that I love my man to the moon and back, quite literally.”