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Is India’s space program worth the money?

January 18, 2014 at 3:14 PM EDT
India's Mars Orbiter Mission is a point of great national pride. It will be completed for just over $70 million, a tiny fraction of the cost spent by NASA on similar programs. But is spending any resources on a mission to Mars wise when hundreds of millions of Indians struggle to meet basic needs?

HARI SREENIVASAN: In early November, India launched a 320 ton rocket – on a mission to Mars.

If all goes according to plan, the Indian spacecraft will travel 485 million miles over more than 10 months, and go into the orbit around Mars in September. The U.S., former Soviet Union, and the European Space Agency are the only ones to have accomplished the feat.

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: It is a challenging task, a complex task.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Dr. K. Radhakrishnan is the director of the Indian Space Research Organization. He was one of the engineers looking on when the Mangalyaan – or Mars craft in Hindi – launched. The probe will be studying the atmosphere of Mars and looking for traces of methane, which could be a sign of previous life.

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: A lot of things are known about Mars, but there are several issues which are yet to be understood, understood precisely.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The mission to Mars is a source of immense national pride in India. But it might also signal a new Asian space race, and it’s already triggered a debate about the benefits of exploring another planet when so many Indians struggle for basic necessities.

Though it has been in existence for nearly 50 years, the very fact that India has a space program is unknown in much of the world. But since its inception, India has not only launched a mission to Mars, but has sent a probe to the moon, and has built and launched 70 satellites that do everything from measuring water resources to enabling mobile communications in rural India.

Radhakrishnan says that at its heart India’s space program is meant to improve life for India’s 1.2 billion people.

One critical mission: to predict where and when storms will hit land, so people in the storm’s path can be taken to safety.

In 1999 when a massive storm hit India’s east coast, more than 10,000 people died. But a few months ago when another powerful storm hit the same area only 21 people died. Nearly 1 million had been evacuated after early warning data from Indian satellites.

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: Part of the use of these Earth observation satellites is to provide services to the fisherman, to the farmer, to the decision maker at the grass-root level.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how does understanding the atmosphere of Mars, or whether there was methane help the farmer or the fisherman in India?

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: It is not directly. Understanding of the atmosphere of Mars is not going to help him immediately, directly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But he says technology from the Mars mission will help improve the satellites India has yet to launch, which will directly benefit ordinary Indian citizens.

But beyond the tangible scientific benefits, the feat of sending a rocket to Mars has been a huge point of pride for India.

As the Mars spacecraft left Earth’s orbit, Indians took to Twitter to express their excitement…A point echoed by Dr. Radhakrishnan, who says the mission has inspired the nation.

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: People are keeping awake in the night to see how the Mars orbiter operations are progressing. So if you can transform so many young minds. And they say yes, we need to take up a career in science, it is a big transformation for the country, for the future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And working for the agency is prestigious. Hundreds of thousands of engineers have applied for just hundreds of slots at the space agency.

The pride is also in part for how little India spends to explore space. The Mars mission costs 4.5 billion rupees or just over $70 million dollars. Compare that to the MAVEN mission – a similar NASA probe that is also currently en route to Mars – that cost nearly ten times as much.

The savings are achieved in part because engineering labor is cheaper, the program recycles and adapts components like launch vehicles, and builds far fewer models, relying heavily on computer testing.

But spending any money on space exploration here is controversial. India is still a developing country where nearly a third of the population – about 400 million people – live on less than a dollar twenty-five a day.

Brinda Adige runs an NGO called Global Concerns India focused on women and children here in a slum in Bangalore less than 10 miles from the headquarters of the Indian space agency. She says she was sad when she first heard about the Mars mission.

BRINDA ADIGE:  At one end of the spectrum so much of money that is being spent to send a rocket out into outer space, when we know that here on Earth, in my country there are children, dying every day because they have no food to eat. So many of them, spending their days and nights without electricity. No roads, no education no protection for women and the girl child anywhere in this country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do you think that if they didn’t spend the money on the satellite then they would spend the money on women and girl’s issues?

BRINDA ADIGE: No, they would not. They would not. The priorities are certainly not looking at children, woman, human beings who are need of basic necessities, just to live.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So you’re not against the science, just the priorities…

India street scene


HARI SREENIVASAN:  Adige gathered a group of women from this slum who echoed some of the same concerns.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  I asked the group that given the millions being spent on the mission to mars, what kind of impact additional money could have in this neighborhood.

They described a litany of issues, including bad roads, lack of access to medical care, the high costs of education, and complaints about sanitation issues like sewage runoff after the rains and a lack of safe drinking water.

One of these women, Manoja, who works as a cook in a nicer part of town took us to her mother-in-law’s house and showed us the contaminated water that comes out of her pipes.

MANOJA: All of this water in the house smells terrible.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  It smelled rancid

This is the municipal water the family pays for from the city. They have to spend extra on trucked in clean drinking water.

But Dr. Radhakrishnan defends the Indian space program budget – in total about $1 billion dollars this year.

US and India mission costs

HARI SREENIVASAN: So on a global level, India’s program is incredibly inexpensive. On a local level it is still very hard for people to comprehend on the streets of Bangalore, spending so much money going to different planet?

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN. The question is in absolute terms when you talk about the $1 billion dollars that we spend annually is it providing the benefits to the people? Space is touching the lives of every man and woman in this country.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Radhakrishnan points out that the entire Indian space program accounts for one third of one percent of the nation’s budget.

Those numbers may make it easier to justify what may be a larger goal, competing with another superpower.

Just last month china became the third country behind the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to land a rover on the moon and China has successfully completed manned spaceflights, a feat several years away for India.

But in going to Mars, India could best its neighbor. The competition is a fuel India is reluctant to admit.

In November 2011, a joint Chinese-Russian mars mission failed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there political pressure to keep up with the next door neighbor, China?

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: Each country has their own priorities, their own vision for the space program. India has its vision, China has its vision, we are pursuing our vision.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It doesn’t matter when China does what it does?

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: It does its program, we do our program.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But it was right after China’s failure that the Prime Minister here said here’s our priority, we are going to Mars.

DR. RADHAKRISHNAN: See, November 2013 is an opportune time for a mission to Mars. And such opportune times occurs only once every 26 months.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  While the Indian launch date did capitalize on when the distance between mars and the earth is shorter, to critics like Brinda Adige, this is simply a space race.

BRINDA ADIGE: ‘You’ve gone to Mars, now I also have to go to Mars.’ You’ve reached moon? I must also go and see whether there’s water on moon or not? Whether my people down here in this country have drinking water or not is secondary. The question arises… to what end?

HARI SREENIVASAN:  To administrators like Dr. Radhakrishan, success with the Mars mission is another step in helping the world see the red planet and India in a new way.