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MOM prepared for launch
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft being prepared for launch. India built and launched the mission for a small fraction of the cost of a typical NASA Mars mission. (credit: ISRO)

To Mars with no ambiguity of purpose


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Last week, the world witnessed India launch its Mars Orbiter Mission, aptly named “Mangalyaan” or “Mars-craft” atop its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The rocket is part of a scientific mission that cost a grand total of 4.5 billion rupees (US$73 million.) By contrast, the next NASA Mars mission, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, due to launch on November 18, will have cost $485 million with an additional $187 million for launch services, and it will perform a similar mission. In that respect, the Indian mission is a bargain by space program terms.

According to a 2006 analysis, a grand total of US$7 billion had been spent by the Indian space program since its inception, with only 6% of that on space science. By comparison, NASA, during the same period, spent an average of US$9.9 billion per year.

There is no big secret to how India’s low-budget space mission has come about. It is through a wholesale remodeling of how space missions are designed, but boils simply down to “save time, money, and human efforts through careful planning.” The Economic Times points out that Mangalyaan achieved this through getting requirements firmly set, operating within constraints, and without luxuries. India’s mission was developed in a strict timeframe of 18 months, whereas MAVEN, which is representative of “shorter” mission timescales for NASA programs, is five years long. But the last two decades, ISRO has perfected a model of “frugal engineering” that resonates highly with “frugal innovation” that C. K. Prahalad wrote about in his now famous article in the Harvard Business Review.

Go boldly, but frugally

This is indeed how most missions in India are carried out, but these do not make it to international headlines as they are focused on less glamorous, but practical, applications. EDUSAT, launched in 2004, it has revolutionized classrooms in rural, single teacher schools through interactive IP-based technology. The INSAT system, a family of ten communication satellites, performs radio networking, TV broadcast, telemedicine, weather forecasting, cyclone warnings, emergency communications during natural disasters, and distant learning. The IRS system family of six satellites provides imagery on subsurface water, crop and fisheries monitoring, forestry, and more, data products of which it even exports internationally. According to an independent economic analysis published in 2006, a grand total of US$7 billion had been spent by the Indian space program since its inception, with only 6% of that on space science. By comparison, NASA, during the same period, spent an average of US$9.9 billion per year. This modest cumulative space expenditure across 38 years amounted to only 0.09% of the gross domestic product, of which launch system capabilities and applications in communications, meteorology, and Earth observation taking the lion’s share. In return, the analysis also pointed out many quantified gains including:

  • Estimated cost of connecting 393 remote areas (served by the INSAT satellite family) by fiber optic networks would have cost 23.58 billion rupees; but doing so by satellite cost only 10.46 billion rupees.
  • In the 1977 cyclone disaster (before INSAT), the estimated death toll was 10,000; in 1990 (with INSAT operational), the estimated death toll during a cyclone of comparable intensity was only 817.

The Indian space program is resolute as always in its purpose to contribute towards both economic and social development of its people. An emerging country like India needs to diversify its unique proposition as an international player within technology, and the space program has been an important tool ever since the vision of a future India was forged by its leaders at independence.

India: the uneven innovator

India’s Mars mission is an impressive feat, both in technology and cost. However, several media reports noted that the launch has invited criticism from those that see that space program as an irresponsible act for a nation that is home to a third of the world’s poorest people. There is no doubt that more needs to be done to improve the condition of those that form the poorest communities, with better health care, better immunization, better education, and better employment opportunities. With the population projected to reach 1.5 billion by 2026, 20 million new jobs are required each year to prevent the country’s poverty from worsening. To address a complex problem of this scale, India needs to serve of its poor in their diverse languages, locations, and by the priorities of their locales through not simply injecting and investing all its expenditure into one service. To create these jobs, it must make itself unique in its technological assets, and these include having a world-class customer service culture, world-class research facilities and universities, world-class talent, and the ability to export its technology and its human resource capabilities equally into its domestic markets, its vibrant and thriving local neighborhood, and the Western world.

Those who argue that space “Mars-shots” are not for countries where poverty exists, often forget that poor people exist in developed countries too.

The 0.09% of India’s GDP spent on its space program is not taking away from any efforts that have to do with basic food provision to poor people. Two months ago, the government signed into law the Food Security Bill, which will provide roughly 800 million Indians with subsidized food and cost nearly $20 billion a year. By comparison, the $73 million spent on MOM is a small investment into the foundation of India as a growing hub for technology. Bangalore, for example, did not become a booming technology center due to its pleasant gardens and warm, temperate weather. It is the home to ISRO, Hindustan Aeronautical Limited, Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), numerous public sector heavy industries, and technology companies such as Infosys and Wipro that have created an environment and pool of the country’s best engineering talents. India’s rise as a technology and research outsourcing destination has allowed numerous international companies to reduce costs and return shareholder benefits through the toughest of times in the recession.

Those who argue that space “Mars-shots” are not for countries where poverty exists, often forget that poor people exist in developed countries too. When President John F Kennedy declared to Americans that “we choose to go to the Moon” more than 50 years ago, 38.6 million Americans, or 21% of the nation, lived below the poverty line. Why shouldn’t India deserve the pride that the American space program offered in the vision of a modern nation?

Low cost but not low tech

This recent launch earns India a place among a small club of entities who have the launch capability to send a spacecraft to Mars. This capability is a strong candidate for commercial exploitation. As NASA and other space agencies look to outsource launch operations, this positions India strongly to export its launch services. Diversification of the launch capabilities opens up the door to a much more vibrant and cost-effective marketplace for access to space for all countries, whether spacefaring already or looking to enter into space.

Getting to Mars is a true technological feat. Since 1960, of 51 missions to Mars have been launched, 30 have failed. And no nation, apart from Europe’s Mars Express, has succeeded in its maiden venture. ISRO have been explicit about the fact that the key technological objective of the mission is to successfully deliver a craft to Mars. With a serious groundswell in public opinion and commercial interest in Mars tourism or scientific payloads, could India be the trusted outsourcing partner for interplanetary delivery? Only time will tell.

The growth of the Indian space program as a strong international collaborator is good for all of us: a rising tide lifts all boats.

Science on Mangalyaan also looks good. It aims to explore surface features, morphology, topology, and composition of the Martian atmosphere. Mangalyaan’s science complement houses a methane sensor, which will look for a potential marker for Martian life, as 90% of all methane on Earth is generated through the activity of microorganisms. These instruments will work together with the forthcoming NASA MAVEN mission in their overlapping objectives to create a deeper understanding of specific processes that caused Mars to lose virtually all of its atmosphere and what effects that had on its climate and habitability.

The growth of the Indian space program as a strong international collaborator is good for all of us: a rising tide lifts all boats. We, as human civilization, know very little yet about the nature of the cosmic neighborhood in which we live and about how our planet, along with its counterparts, behaves. The understanding of Martian atmospheric phenomenon, discovery of new planetary processes, and the prospects of extant or extinct life there is paramount in understanding how our planet functions and how we can sustain resources for all life better. As a country representing more than 17% of the world population, India needs to have a strong program in space sciences in order to bring greater global integration in many other human endeavors, especially if it comes at a price that is less than the average Bollywood film budget of 4.7 billion rupees!


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