Monday, November 11, 2013

India's Mars Mission

An interesting comment on India's Mars Mission in Business India magazine editorial

Editorial: Business India, Nov 11-24, 2013

Mars Mission: ISRO Success on a Budget

We congratulate Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on the successful launch of the rocket carrying India’s Mars probe, named Mangalyaan. Since then, Mangalyaan has undergone three orbit raising missions successfully. There are three more to go. It is expected to carry out several scientific experiments from its Martian orbit a year from now. The results of these modest but clever experiments are expected to enrich our knowledge of Mars.

There is still a long way to go before we declare success of the whole mission, but as the old adage goes, ‘well begun is half done’. It is all the more creditable considering that the last Mars mission sent by China and Russia two years ago failed in Earth’s orbit itself. All the players in space technology would be closely observing the developments in Mangalyaan. As the success rate of Mars missions is abysmally low and only 25 of the 42 have succeeded.

This being the 25th ‘commercial’ flight of India’s work horse rocket PSLV, international interest is inspired by more than just scientific curiosity. Hence forth, many developing countries and even some of the more advanced economies, which do not have a space program of their own, will examine seriously the possibility of using ISRO’s commercial services in satellite design and launch. Already international media is hailing ISRO as a low cost space program and have pointed out that the Mangalyaan cost India a meagre $73 million, whereas comparable missions have cost others almost ten times. Indian space program is being characterized internationally as, “Frugal Engineering” and even “Gandhian Engineering”. 

Over the years, Business India has many times examined the potential of India’s space business and has advocated a more effective global marketing effort by ISRO.

It is but natural that in an argumentative society like ours, there are those who come up with absurdities like: “why not build more toilets” etc. Naturally some in the international media are lapping up the discordant sound bites. The all-round gains to Indian society and economy through ISRO’s R&D, to name a few are: enormously improved telecommunication system; entertainment and electronic media; search and rescue; weather prediction including disaster management like the recent super cyclone Phailin; better and safer transportation through satellite navigation; many sided benefits of earth remote sensing and resource management; military intelligence and so on. Thus this well worn out debate--‘space technology or butter’, is not worth entering into.

It is to be noted that China is offering the carrot of space services to countries in India’s neighbourhood, to increase its influence in the region, while India has not. It is time ISRO offered turn-key services for communication and remote sensing satellite design and launch facilities in the neighbourhood with even some free piggy backing arrangements. There should be more coordination between the PMO, MEA and ISRO in this regard.

While we applaud ISRO’s success in the last five decades heartily, we should not ignore the challenges. Technologically the most important one is the development of Cryogenic Engine technology. India has been at it for exactly two decades without success. That will be the key to create launch capabilities for heavier satellites, communication satellites as well as manned space missions. Clearly China is way ahead of us in this respect. Second of all, even if Mangalyaan is eventually a total success, we do not yet see a clear statement of intent or vision regarding the exploration of Moon or Mars or other parts of solar system by ISRO. It all seems piece-meal and ad-hoc, announced by successive Prime Ministers on August 15, from the ramparts of the Red Fort.

Though one should abhor a race with China for issues of prestige, one should clearly understand the commercial and military-strategic advantage that any nation with space technology holds vis-a-vis others.

For now, whether Mangalyaan discovers little green men or just some methane in the Martian atmosphere, let us applaud the thousands of engineers and scientists of ISRO and wish them success. We owe them at least as much, considering that they have toiled at government salaries and created strategic technologies, whereas many of them could have surely earned millions in the Silicon Valley.