India’s low-budget space program may offer lesson for U.S. – Part 2

India’s successful first mission to Mars is a major accomplishment for that nation, in both scientific and budgetary terms. To understand the historic feat, India’s space program and where it fits into the American exploration of Mars, science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Hari Sreenivasan.

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    More now about India's historic mission, its space program and whether this fits into our exploration of Mars.

    Miles O'Brien is the NewsHour science correspondent, and he joins me from Boston.

    So, they have every right to be excited, I take it.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, It's a great day for space lovers everywhere, really.

    I always say the more the merrier in space. And the beauty of these kinds of missions is, everybody shares the data. If this particular vehicle has a detector for methane, let's say, for example, and the NASA MAVEN, which arrived just a couple of days before, doesn't, that data can just be added on to what they're using and they can share the information.

    And it just increases our knowledge and builds another little puzzle piece in understanding what happened to Mars over the millennia.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Americans almost take it for granted that we have now successes on getting something up to the orbit of Mars, but India, you know, was really pretty impressed by just the mathematical difficulty of it. How hard is it to do all the right kind of course corrections to get something in orbit around a different planet from here?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, you know, it wasn't too long ago when we were talking about a NASA mission that crashed on its way to arrive on Mars.

    And the problem was, if you will recall, they had two teams operating on it. One team was using the metric system. One team was using English units, and they completely missed Mars. They missed their landing spot and that was the end of that mission, Mars Climate Orbiter.

    So it's tricky stuff. It really is. The term, it's rocket science? It really is rocket science. So the fact that they pulled this off is a huge demonstration of their prowess and it's a great technological demonstrator.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the big headlines today is the cost of getting something from India to Mars vs., three days ago, the cost of getting something from the United States to the same planet. Why is there such a big difference?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, of course, as you well know, Hari, there is a difference in the wage structure there. That's a part of it.

    But there is a little more subtlety to it than that. If you think about the origins of NASA, NASA began with a blank check essentially to beat the Soviets to the moon. And that ethos, that mind-set kind of stayed with them for a long time after they had accomplished that goal in 1969.

    And so I think NASA now has turned around on that. They are trying to open up low-Earth orbit, for example, to commercial entities as a way of lowering the cost to getting to space. But the Indians over the years — necessity is the mother of invention. They had lean budgets and so they had to build lean spacecraft in novel ways.

    They couldn't throw things out like perhaps NASA was. They had to iterate in a very gradual way. And, as a result, you can do it a lot cheaper. And I think there's a great lesson there for the U.S. space program.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Even the head of the Indian Space Research Organization was saying, we stand on the shoulders of the people who went before us.

    I'm assuming a space program like theirs benefit from watching the mistakes and the corrections of the European Space Agency or NASA or Japan or anybody that has gone therefore.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, that's an important point as well.

    It's always more expensive to be first. And there were many mistakes along the way. The U.S. lost many craft. The Soviets lost many craft. The Europeans have lost craft. Trying to get to Mars is kind of the Bermuda Triangle of planetary destinations in our solar system.

    So the fact is, the Indians were able to go to school on all these mishaps over the years and learn an awful lot about what it takes to arrive there. It's not an easy task. And they have proven a lot of things. This is a very ambitious space program. They one day want to join the ranks of nations that send human beings into space.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what is it that now with both of these crafts, or maybe five crafts circling Mars, what are we hoping to learn about Mars with these missions?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, Mars is very dry, very inhospitable and it's very cold. Three billion or four billion years ago, it was warm and wet and we think a cushy birth for life.

    We haven't seen the smoking gun that there was life there or may be life there subterranean, but something happened along the way there. And understanding what that is all about is a very interesting scientific problem and it might tell us a little something about climate change here on Earth, for one thing.

    The other thing is just understanding if there was life, finding that fossil or, for that matter, that tiny microbe that might exist there today will tell us one way or another if we are in fact alone in the universe. If we look at the planet next door and we find that there has been life or there is life, we can look at the stars and say, gosh, there's probably something else out there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien joining us from Boston, thanks so much.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Hari.

Listen to this Segment