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PSLV launch
The launch of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission on a PSLV rocket on November 5. The mission, while praised by many, has also been criticized as an unwise use of resources by a developing country. (credit: ISRO)

India’s Mars Mission: the media converts science to a soap opera


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On November 5, 2013, the world witnessed a textbook launch of India’s first mission to Mars. This launch successfully completed the first phase of this mission. It is still premature to celebrate the success of this mission because it will take approximately 300 days for this satellite to reach Mars, enter orbit around it, and start taking observations. However, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) needs to be congratulated for passing the first hurdle successfully and, more importantly, for dreaming big for the country.

Overall, the debate in the mainstream media on this issue was less about science than other issues.

Interestingly, the story of India’s first Mars mission, officially named Mars Obiter Mission (MOM), received a mixed response both from Indian and foreign media. This story of science and technology suddenly found different strands, from hunger to misplaced proprieties to the wasting of public money to symbolism to the space race. There could be different reasons for this outburst of mixed emotions. One, the overactive media, particularity the electronic media, had no time to spend to understand a complex mission like this. So, they decided to play the game they are comfortable with, that is, to try create a controversy! Two, ISRO did not carry out an effective public education campaign before the mission and didn’t try to increase public awareness. Three, in a democracy the view of minority is also important, but unfortunately the media overhyped that view. Four, globally there are more misconceptions about India’s science and technology capabilities in general and space in particular. Finally, India’s actual financial conditions and industrial achievements do not match with global perceptions.

Overall, the debate in the mainstream media on this issue was less about science than other issues. It is important to mention that a few science journalists had taken significant amount of time to work on the “Indian Mars story” and. Fortunately. their media houses had provided them sufficient time and space to present this story. But these were exceptions. Broadly, the following issues emerged during the various debates.

Hunger

Some argued that since there is so much hunder in India, why undertake a Mars mission? It is true that India’s ranking in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) is not very encouraging. As per the assessment made by International Food Policy Research Institute along with Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide, India stands 63th in ranking and even trails Pakistan and Bangladesh on the index. It is important to note that the calculation of this index is mostly based on the data about the prevalence of children under five who are underweight and the rate of child mortality.

There could be three basic reasons for India’s bad performance. One is the population explosion in India, which remains unchecked. A second is health care, although this is more of an administrative challenge and shortage of funds could only be a minor irritant. The third reason is social issues, and the GHI report puts it very succinctly: “Social inequality and the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women are major causes of child under-nutrition.” Also, controlling child birth is problematic for various reasons, including a lack of education, strong religious beliefs, political apathy, and early age marriages. Moreover, India, being a vibrant democracy and open society, accurate data is available. This may not be the case with other states with low performing GHI. Many ot these nations are in regions of ongoing conflict or insurgency and are badly and undemocratically ruled states. A lack of authentic data could be a problem.

In regards to hunger, the reality is that India’s investments in satellite technology have actually helped the agriculture sector immensely. Today, India’s agriculture production exceeds its requirements and the problem of food shortages is more directly linked to bad management.

Money

Others argued that India, being a Third World and developing country, should not spend money on “fancy” ideas like a Mars mission. The standing of the Indian economy has been widely discussed. Using carefully selected statistical inputs, various arguments could be formulated about the economic status. However, in spite of witnessing two recent global recessions and some internal problems, the Indian economy has remained stable and the present growth rate is around five percent. Presently, world's sixth largest number of billionaires are in India.

The criticism by a certain section of society emerges because they view that the growth process under a neoliberal regime is inherently anti-poor. However, this may not be a correct view. At the same time it needs to be accepted that there is an unequal distribution of wealth in India. However, the issue of maintaining socioeconomic balance is unlikely to be solved by banning a space program!

Lopsided science priorities

Another argument advanced recently is that India should invest more in science for social growth and not for going to Mars. Obviously such arguments are being given by the people who lack the understanding of science or are doing this with the intent to take the advantage of media buzz around Mars. The Indian government has allocated US$8 billion for science and technology in its 2013 budget, and the cost of Mars mission is US$70 million, or 0.87% of this budget. The cost of the Mars mission is about 7–8% of ISRO’s annual budget.

The issue of maintaining socioeconomic balance is unlikely to be solved by banning a space program!

It could be noted that NASA’s MAVEN mission costs more than US$675 million, while the budget for Curiosity program was US$2.5 billion. Technologically, it may not be correct to make a comparison among these missions; however, it does provide some basic idea in respect of investments. The government of India spends 0.34% of its total budget for its space program and within that money 8% have been used for Mars mission. The cost of India’s Mars mission is less than the cost one passenger airliner.

Given the above backdrop, the global criticism claiming India is spending “lavishly” and undertaking an “elite” space agenda looks unwarranted.

Hastily planned mission

This mission was officially announced by India Prime Minister in his Independence Day speech on August 15, 2012. Hence, it is believed that ISRO has put the entire mission in place within 15 months. However, no head of state would make such an important announcement without being sure about the capabilities and preparations. Also, it needs to be understood that such announcements could be delayed for an appropriate occasion.

In fact, India’s 2012 financial budget, which was presented to the parliament during month of March, had included funding for this program. Usually, such significant budget provisions are made only when all preparations on drawing board are ready. Within a month of the official announcement of the mission in August 2012, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) had handed over the MOM satellite structure to the ISRO Satellite Centre. All this clearly indicates that this not a hastily planned mission.

No science and technology benefits

India is trying to reinvent the wheel, some complain, and the science payloads of this mission are insignificant. There is a partial truth in the concerns raised. At the same time it is like a case of whether a glass is half full or half empty.

The rocket used for the launch of MOM was the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), although some believe India should have used the more powerful Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). However, GSLV is still under development and ISRO is struggling with this technology. Mars offers a launch opportunity only every 26 months. Hence, given the choice to use the present opportunity with available resources or wait till 2016, ISRO chose the former. Asking for outside help to launch the mission would have been a costly proposal and, moreover, ISRO would have lost an opportunity to experiment and learn.

It is important to appreciate that “space race” is essentially a Cold War era concept. In the 21st century, for a nation like India “pragmatism” is the key when deciding on its geopolitical priorities, and the same is expected from China.

The issue of reinventing wheel is debatable. Mercedes may make the best of cars in the world but that does not mean that others don’t produce cars with different features. NASA’s MAVEN is not carrying a methane senor but MOM is. This sensor would attempt to look for signatures in regards to possibility of life on Mars. Some note that Curiosity has failed to find methane on Mars so why India should try again? However, Curiosity is a robot operating on the surface of Mars and its assessment is based on the examination of a very limited area. India’s MOM is a satellite and hence would be scanning a major portion of Mars and thus would do a broader analysis.

In respect of other sensors, some argue that we already have better information available about the topography and morphology of Mars, so what new knowledge could MOM add? MOM would provide latest observations and its actual utility would be known only after comparing and contrasting them with the earlier data. MOM would not be viewing the Mars from very close proximity, given its elliptical orbit, and also there is a reservation in respect of resolution and quality of data likely to be received from the sensors. Such criticism could be valid to a certain extent, but for a beginner like India, the entire mission is more of a technology demonstration and learning.

Space race with China

India, some believe, is trying to compete with China and this could eventually lead to a space race. It is important to appreciate that “space race” is essentially a Cold War era concept. In the 21st century, for a nation like India “pragmatism” is the key when deciding on its geopolitical priorities, and the same is expected from China. The Chinese space program is much more advanced than India’s. China put its first astronaut in space in 2003, while India is not even thinking in that direction. Similarly, they have developed a prototype space station, which is also not on India’s agenda. Also, China has a satellite navigation program with plans for global reach, which is not the case with India.

In the deep space arena, China’s Moon program has made significant progress. Hence, it would be naive to think that just because a Chinese satellite has not visited Mars, India is trying to race with it. Also, it is often mentioned that the first attempted Chinese mission to Mars (Yinghuo-1) failed. The reality is that this probe was launched on Russian booster that actually failed and, hence, Yinghuo-1 never got an opportunity to demonstrate its capabilities.

Unfortunately, a major section of both Indian and foreign media converted India’s scientific mission into a soap opera by raising superfluous issues like hunger, malnutrition, expenditure, and so on. Today, India is trying to find its place in the global commercial space market. Missions like this raise the stature of India and its space capabilities. Such missions help enhance knowledge in arenas like strategic materials, communications, nanotechnology, robotics, and more.

Going to Mars is about the quest to know more about our neighboring planet. It is about finding the answers to why Mars lost its atmosphere and whether there was, or still is, life on Mars. It is about examining whether the Earth will suffer the same fate as Mars in the future. It is also about studying the potential for future Mars colonization. It may take time to find these answers. Hence, we need to start this query now. It is important to learn from the experiences of Mars for the betterment of life on Earth in future. Therefore, there is a need to start now. We owe it to our future generations.


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