Space Exploration on a Shoestring Budget: India’s Inaugural Expedition to Mars

By Dr. Manish Sinha

On 5 November 2013, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) began an attempt to achieve what no other country’s space agency had managed before – a successful maiden mission to Mars.

The ISRO’s $72 million Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), nicknamed Mangalyaan, achieved successful lift-off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre 100 miles from Chennai. Trailing in its shadow was NASA’s twenty-fourth mission to Mars, the $671 million MAVEN satellite launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida just two weeks later.

Subsequent to the 2008 launch of Chandrayaan-1, India’s successful maiden Moon mission and the cheapest moon mission to date, how realistic is India’s goal of sending a probe to the Red Planet handicapped by a shoestring budget of the highest order?

Can a country that has manufactured the world’s cheapest car at $2,600 and computer tablet at $60 genuinely design and propel a satellite 140 million miles through interplanetary space for approximately one-tenth of the cost of NASA’s contemporaneous mission? Furthermore, is such an expenditure wise of a government where, according to the United Nations Development Programme, 29.8% of Indians in 2010 lived below the country’s national poverty line in conjunction with widespread malnutrition and poor national infrastructure, with finances hampered by the slowest economic growth in a decade and record current account deficit? 

The Budget

The ISRO was founded in August 1969, one month after man first walked on the Moon. Notionally, the American and Indian governments allocate approximately 0.5 percent of their national budgets to their space agencies, yet the ISRO’s annual budget of $900 million is significantly dwarfed by NASA’s $17.7 billion, Russia’s $5.6 billion, the European Space Agency’s $5.5 billion and China’s $1.3 billion.

However, in part due to scarcity of funds and thus in antithesis to NASA, which has attempted space exploration on a grand scale from the outset, the ISRO has primarily conducted modest missions designed to directly benefit the country’s population, such as placing orbital satellites that aid weather forecasting, remote education, medicine, communications and mapping. For instance, a fierce cyclone that devastated India’s east coast in October 2013 killed very few whereas a similarly potent occurrence in the same location fourteen years earlier killed over ten thousand; advanced weather-forecasting technology and communications infrastructure as part of the Indian National Satellite System program was felt to be a significant factor in the reduction of deaths. 

The 2008 lunar mission, which represented the first instance of the remote discovery of water locked within the lunar surface directly from an orbital satellite (as opposed to requiring physical examination of rock samples collected during NASA’s Apollo space program), marked a significant departure from this modus operandi – the present Mars mission extends this paradigm shift yet further. The challenge facing India’ space agency is demonstrated by noting that out of approximately fifty prior missions to Mars, virtually sixty percent have failed and no country has managed a successful mission in its first attempt. The ISRO is keenly aware that the next phase of the journey is where two-thirds of prior missions have failed. Should India succeed, it will become the fourth nation, and Asia’s first, to successfully send a probe to the Red Planet – Japan’s initial foray in 1998 terminated due to electrical malfunction whilst China’s satellite in 2011 failed to depart Earth orbit due to rocket failure. At the time of writing, India’s mission to Mars has successfully passed 100 days in space and the Earth’s gravitational field is no longer the strongest component determining its flight path. 

The Costs 

Unquestionably, India possesses established credentials in accomplishing technological breakthroughs through low-cost innovation. The ten-fold cost difference between the two missions may be partly appreciated by examining a broad range of attributes. MAVEN is three-times the size and twice the weight of the Indian satellite, adding significantly to launch cost. It is launched by the powerful Atlas 5 rocket with sufficient thrust to propel it directly to Mars, whereas the Mars Orbiter Mission sits atop a rocket with half this thrust and must transition slowly through progressively higher orbits before ultimately departing for Mars one month later, a process that utilizes less fuel overall.

The launch vehicle, which boasts a 96 percent success rate established over twenty-five launches, has to date launched 30 Indian and 35 foreign satellites belonging to 17 different countries. Furthermore, the technology for the rocket’s engine was acquired during the 1970s through collaboration with the French government and involved no monetary transaction. Both missions possess diametrically opposite objectives. 

Rather than traditionally scientific in nature, the primary purpose of India’s inaugural mission to Mars consists of a technology feasibility study which, if successful, will form the basis of future interplanetary missions – a mission to the Sun and a second Moon mission with a land rover are anticipated during the next few years. Nonetheless, Mangalyaan carries five relatively simple scientific instruments including a sensor that will measure the level of methane in the Martian atmosphere. 

The Methane Factor

The search for methane is crucial as in 2012 NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory landed Curiosity, a rover designed to explore the Martian surface, which failed to detect signs of methane; a positive finding could indicate, though not exclusively prove, signs of potential life. In contrast, MAVEN’s objectives are wholly scientific and the probe carries a complex suite of eight highly sophisticated instruments designed to generate a holistic picture of the Martian atmosphere. Finally, NASA typically constructs three models of each spacecraft whilst the Mangalyaan was modeled entirely on computer and fabricated just once, leading to further cost reduction.

Despite the significant positive impact upon national pride that a successful engineering endeavour of this stature can generate, legitimate questions have been raised regarding the appropriateness of utilizing public funds in this manner. Opponents have condemned it as a vanity project designed to compete with China’s achievements, a neighbour that sent a man into Earth orbit in 2003. Critics inevitably point to the World Bank’s finding that in 2010 400 million people in India lived below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day as a glaring illustration of the misuse of funds. 

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Whilst proponents of the program would not dispute that an additional $72 million would benefit the poor, they argue that this is a relatively fractional cost and should be placed into perspective when compared with the much larger government expenditure aimed at solving the country’s fundamental problems. For instance, the mission’s budget is equivalent to that of four big Bollywood movies, an industry that released 120 movies in 2013 alone. India annually spends approximately ten times the mission’s cost on firecrackers for its Diwali festival of lights and fuel worth twice this amount is wasted by idling vehicles on Delhi’s roads each year. The mission utilizes just 8 percent of the ISRO’s annual budget, thereby representing a relatively small risk to the agency’s funds and overall objectives.

According to India’s Planning Commission, poverty in India declined consistently from 37.2 percent in 2004-05 to a record low of 22 percent in 2011-12, emphasizing significant progress in this regard. Over the same period, government expenditure in development increased from 38% to 45% of total expenditure. 

Space vs. Welfare

Additionally, India passed the world’s largest welfare scheme, its $20 billion National Food Security Act, in September 2013 that, despite its implementation challenges, aims to subsidize rice, wheat and coarse grains to approximately two-thirds of the population in which 40 percent of children remain undernourished. Thus, whilst critics argue that a space mission with questionable immediate benefits to the country represents a gross misuse of funds, others highlight that government investment programs are already making progress in addressing the needs of the poor and malnourished. Ultimately, and crucially, there is no known interdependence between a developing country’s poverty level and the extent of its space program.

If, and when, India’s first mission to Mars successfully enters orbit around 24 September 2014, it will represent a hugely successful outcome for a country with limited funds in the risky and challenging endeavour of space exploration. Confirmation of its technological capabilities would help ensure that the risks and resources of future interplanetary exploration would be shared between progressively more countries, increasing the potential for greater international collaboration and lower associated costs to each participating country. 

The long-term spin-offs are always difficult to gauge yet technological innovation go hand-in-hand with reciprocal benefit to society. The eyes of over one billion people will be trained upon Mars later this year and many hope that Mangalyaan will represent one small step for humanity’s exploration of space, and a giant leap for India in technological advancement through intelligent low-cost engineering innovation.