This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
Last November, India reached the moon, the fifth country to do so after the United States, Russia, Japan, and China. Its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft went into a polar orbit 100 kilometers above the lunar surface early in the month; a week later it sent a probe to the surface, the probe snapping pictures and spectroscopically analyzing the superthin lunar atmosphere. It disintegrated on impact, but not before accomplishing its final task: depositing an Indian flag.
Incorporating scientific instruments from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the government of Bulgaria, the US $100 million Chandrayaan mission is helping scientists better understand the moon’s topography and the distribution of chemicals and minerals on its surface. The orbiter’s camera, which can resolve surface objects 5 meters across, has sent back thousands of stunning images. One of the mission’s chief goals is to search for water. Moon bases would need it to keep people alive and to manufacture propellant for missions to Mars and elsewhere.
No one relished the Indian triumph more than G. Madhavan Nair, the head of the country’s national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), based in Bangalore. Not only had the 66-year old electrical engineer chaperoned the mission, he had earlier led the effort to build the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a version of which propelled the Chandrayaan-1 on its voyage as the first Indian craft to escape Earth’s gravity. During his 42-year career at the ISRO he has tackled such diverse challenges as completing India’s liquid-hydrogen and -oxygen rocket engine and setting up rural offices that let farmers get up-to-date information from weather and Earth-sensing satellites.
With a workforce of 16 000, the ISRO is among a handful of space agencies in the world capable of designing, building, and launching its own satellites. Besides the PSLV, it also operates the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The ISRO’s 2008 budget of $1 billion was not quite one-seventeenth of NASA’s, yet the Indian agency operates the largest constellation of civilian remote-sensing satellites in the world, with eight orbiters, including a few capable of mapping to a resolution of less than 1 meter. In January 2007, the ISRO safely brought back an orbiting satellite as part of an effort to understand reentry technology—an essential step for undertaking human spaceflight.