By Vivek Bhattacharya

Edited by Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

Mars, our red neighbor, has always captivated human imagination. No wonder then that the whole country and the entire world rose in jubilation when Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) added yet another feather to its cap – its maiden Interplanetary Orbiter Mission to Mars.

But this isn’t the first try by mankind by any means. Its endeavor to scale this hurdle dates all the way back to the 1960s, with a mixed bag of success and failures. Those which failed were the then-USSR’s ‘Korabl 13’ in 1969 to their latest Phobos Grunt, NASA’s Mariner series and Japan’s Nozomi. But those which were triumphant were NASA’s Viking series (mid 70s), Pathfinder (1990s), Spirit and Opportunity (2003), Phoenix (2007), Curiosity (2011) and their recent – Maven (2013-14).

MoM’s (Mars Orbiter Mission) journey, from design table to lift-off, has been tumultuous. One of the terse decisions that had to be made was to decide on the launch vehicle (LV). ISRO currently brags of two, very different LVs in its kitty, each deployed for two different categories of satellites – Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) with a payload limit of 1.6 tons; and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with a capacity of 2.5 tons, a significant difference. Three factors tipped it in favour of the former – At that time, GSLV tests were not successful. ISRO had tried GSLV to launch GSAT-14 satellite and failed because of a fuel leak (In August 2013). Second, MoM’s payload weighed 1.3 tonnes, which PSLV can easily bear. But third, and the single biggest factor, was PSLV’s spotless record in delivery – with 25 successful launches out of 26 and a strike rate of 96%. An enviable record for a space agency.

MoM carries five different payloads, which cater broadly to three different research fields. For surface studies, a Mars Colour Camera (MCC) will scan the Mars surface, dust storms etc. A set of such pictures have already been beamed back. Atmospheric research will be conducted via Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA) which will scan neutral gas in Martian atmosphere, Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM); because if methane and water are detected, it implies a possibility that at some point of time, Mars had supported life form. And Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP), will measure hydrogen to deuterium ratio on Mars. Deuterium is heavier than hydrogen and therefore water from heavy hydrogen is heavier and hence it evaporates differently. Knowing the Hydrogen: Deuterium ratio will help answer how water vanished from Mars, if there was any to start with.

This milestone in the history of India’s space research has met its fair share of criticism too. One of the primary grievances has been that it’s a waste of money. India still has thousands who don’t secure two square meals a day, millions of children suffering from malnutrition; and half the population is without access to toilets- an issue the incumbent prime minister has himself highlighted in his speeches.

But the author argues that it’s an investment that will be recovered within a few decades. Many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are clocking steady GDP growth, but they are yet to forge a pool of skilled manpower, advanced technology and the funds to setup their own launch vehicles and premier space agencies. They also need satellites for communication and military. Hence they outsource their satellite launch delivery and survey operations to established players. In that space, ISRO’s PSLV has a towering reputation for being a reliable workhorse. ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix makes a profit from such ‘outsourced’ contracts. In the financial year 2013-14, their turnover recorded a whopping 13 billion. Now, ISRO spent only 450 crore rupees, which earns ISRO of being a pocket-friendly, cost-saving space agency. So the Mars mission has inadvertently become a PR boost for Antrix, and it can be reasonably expected the amount will be recovered soon. It might even go into surplus. If that argument does not hold, the government spends 0.35% of budget on space programs. And even out of that 0.35% allocation, ISRO spent only 8% on this mission – making it cost 0.028% of GDP. So the conjecture that the government reduced, or altogether stopped expenditure on other welfare schemes to fund ISRO’s Mars adventure, seems untenable.

It has also been alleged that the thousands of ISRO scientists and engineers should be instead deployed  to come up with new space technology to address malnutrition and poverty issues, such as developing faster and wider communication platforms to reduce the ‘digital divide’; and augment India’s numerous social welfare programs. Moreover, cutting edge missions like that to Mars have high gestation periods in terms of utility. Benefits from these programs may materialize in half a century from now. To top that, Tata Sky planned to sue ISRO for not meeting its contract obligations. So it does seem to insinuate that ISRO should instead reinvest in expanding existing technology on a spatial basis, than pursue interplanetary missions. But to those sticking to this line of argument, it’s worthwhile mentioning the 1999 Odisha cyclone killed  over 10,000 people; but 2013 cyclone Phalin killed very few, because Indian satellites gave accurate weather predictions about where and when the storm would hit. The Indian constellation of weather satellites had long been set up before 2013, at a time when people were sceptical as to how it would be useful. So to be judging a technology’s utility in its present context seems to be a fallacy, given the above example.
ISRO has installed a methane detector in this spacecraft. But earlier, NASA’s Curiosity rover had already beamed back data which had concluded that Mars’ environment doesn’t contain methane. So ISRO is seemingly indulging in fruitless exercise. But is it? NASA’s Curiosity rover measured presence of methane over certain sectors on surface, based on feasibility studies. But MoM will scan entire the Martian environment to detect Methane, which makes it a new study, and not repetitive.

This mission has also been through the prism of it being a rat race. Less of a scientific pursuit and more of a space race with regional competitors like China, riding on the ‘me-too’ fad. On that count, the criticism holds. India seems to be cherry-picking it’s targets and seems to have forgotten China has made major strides in terms of GDP and poverty alleviation, something India can ill-afford to not prioritize.

Interestingly, logging such achievements might also inconvenience India in terms of foreign aid. It is likely that top donors like countries such as Japan and organizations like World Bank might reduce the aid to India operating under the assumption that if India has the resources to run for such Mars adventures, they must have the financial infrastructure sound enough to look after their poor population and tackle other social problems as well.

On the other hand, scaling such achievements can be an exercise in soft power. In accordance with the standard internationally accepted norm of reciprocity, India can enter into a give-and-take relationship on a bilateral basis with several countries. In exchange for ‘giving’ personnel and technology and giving discounts on their space projects/infrastructure, India could ‘take’ their support for India’s claim to a Permanent seat in UNSC, as well as their votes in our favour whenever the Kashmir or the Arunachal Pradesh issue pops up in the UN General Assembly. Along with this, India can also benefit from oil-gas exploration contracts in their territory and other allied areas. Hence, 450 crore rupees is a very petty amount to accomplish many diplomatic victories, compared to the thousands of crores we have given to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan via “soft” loans so they don’t shelter terrorists and secessionists on their soil.

It has also bolstered India’s global profile as a force to be reckoned with. Until now, only three agencies had succeeded in the Mars Mission – European Space Agency (ESA) of the European Union, NASA of the US, Roscosmos (The Russian Federal Space Agency) of Russia. However, USA, Japan and China failed to reach Mars in their first attempt. These countries made a total of 51 missions to Mars so far, and only a pittance of 21 missions succeeded. ISRO’s Mars mission succeeded in its first attempt, and it came as no surprise that China has applauded this event as the “pride of Asia”.

Other miscellaneous benefits are plentiful. With such an overwhelming success, it will attract talented Indian scientists and engineers to join ISRO, thus curbing the ‘brain drain’. Also, the data gathered from ISRO’s mission can be used to send manned missions on Mars later.

In closing, humanity would not have progressed if we had not taken such leaps into the unknown. That necessity is the mother of invention stays relevant even today, but much of the technology we use now is a progeny of a different mother altogether – the basal urge to explore and unravel the unknown. And space is indeed the biggest unknown out there.

Vivek Bhattacharyya majored in Electronics Engineering, and is a Foreign Policy and International Relations enthusiast. He was formerly associated with Non-Traditional Security Research Centre (NTS-RC) at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), and Observer Research Foundation, besides having written extensively to The Hindu and the Indian Express on similar issues. Other interests include constitutional and international law, socio-political issues and literature. He believes human stupidity is a far bigger threat to mankind than ISIS, and can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/Vivek.Bhattacharyya90 or vivek.bhattacharyya1990@gmail.com.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind