The successful launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission today marked a promising start for India's ambitions to become the fourth in the world to reach the red planet. The mission kicks off in the midst of what some see as a growing Asian space race and amidst some reflection among Indians regarding their country's national priorities.
The Indian spacecraft represents one of the cheapest missions to take aim at Mars with a price tag of just US $72 million. But the relatively low cost has not stopped some Indians from wondering about the wisdom of launching a mission to Mars while the country still faces huge health and economic challenges at home, according to the BBC.
India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has modest scientific goals compared to a more expensive Mars orbiters such as NASA's $671-million MAVEN mission. The spacecraft has a small payload of just 15 kilograms with five instruments rather than the six originally planned, according to the Planetary Society. India's rocket launcher limitations also mean that MOM will have a long, slow-moving elliptical orbit around Mars that only comes close to the red planet once every 3.2 days—far from ideal for doing scientific surveys.
"Ultimately, I think, this mission is really not about science," said Emily Lakdawalla in her Planetary Society blog post. "Any science returned from this mission will be a cool side benefit from a challenging, successful technological demonstration; the tech will have to succeed for the science to come."
Technology demonstration aside, the mission also plays a role in boosting national prestige in the midst of what some describe as an Asian space race. China has already launched taikonauts into orbit and has plans for a space station.
If India's Mars mission succeeds, it will represent the first successful venture to the red planet by any Asian country. China's Yinghuo-1 probe failed to depart Earth orbit after launching aboard a joint Russia-China Mars mission in November 2011, and Japan's 1998 Nozomi orbiter failed to properly enter Mars orbit in 2003. (See IEEE Spectrum's special report on Mars.)
Some prominent figures in India say that national pride does not justify the mission costs at a time when India faces big issues at home on Earth. The former head of India's space agency has suggested that the Mars mission money could have found better use in funding communication and weather satellites for the country. Economist Jean Dreze of the Delhi School of Economics told CNN that the money would have been better spent on public health or solar energy, and was quoted in the BBC as lamenting how the mission "seems to be part of the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status."
The debate over the cost of space exploration compared to other national priorities isn't unique to India—even the U.S. space program has faced similar criticisms during its existence. Instead, India represents a more stark example of the tradeoffs required for spending money on space exploration, especially during a time when the country is home to one in three malnourished children in the world and has still has more than 300 million people living without electricity.
Nisha Agrawal, chief executive of Oxfam in India, laid out the dilemma and challenges for India in an interview with the BBC.
"India is home to poor people but it's also an emerging economy, it's a middle-income country, it's a member of the G20. What is hard for people to get their head around is that we are home to poverty but also a global power. We are not really one country but two in one. And we need to do both things: contribute to global knowledge as well as take care of poor people at home."
The attitude of forging ahead with space as a national priority seems to be shared by both India and China, rivals in the race for socioeconomic development on Earth and space exploration. An editorial in China's Global Times observed how India had stuck to its "national interests" in pursuing the Mars mission and other space efforts despite the populist backlash, and concluded that China ought to do the same.
India's Mars mission must still beat the odds. More than half of all missions to Mars have failed along the way—a grim history lesson illustrated in IEEE Spectrum's infographic about past Mars missions. But if MOM can escape the Mars graveyard, it may help justify India's continuing efforts to become a leader in future space exploration efforts.
Photo: Indian Space Research Organisation
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.