Mars Needs Mom
Indians have always been fascinated by space since antiquity. Our ancestors had helped the world to understand the mysteries of the heavens. Our ancient scientists spent all their lives looking at space. In the recent times, scientists such as Subramaniam Chandrasekhar and S N Bose have made many contributions to this field. India’s successful mission to Mars made Prime Minister say to the space scientists, “through your achievement, you have honoured our forefathers, and inspired our future generations,” Both Aryabatta and Bhaskaracharya would be really proud of the scientists who worked on this mission.
The successful mission to Mars was achieved with an extraordinary tag of $74 million—one-tenth of what a similar mission would cost for any other agency. Probes to Mars have often been unsuccessful and have a high rate of failure. Of the 51 missions so far, only 21 have succeeded. ISRO is now the fourth space agency in the world after, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA) and European Space Agency, to have successfully undertaken a mission to Mars. India’s Mars mission is being seen as latest escalation in Asia’s space race.
Last year, when our rocket speed off, many western journalists who had marveled at the moon walk in their childhood engaged in crude criticism and unnecessary provocation. The Guardian of London had reported in its headline: “India Mars Mission Launched Amidst Overwhelming Poverty.” There was also a thinly-veiled threat: “ISRO to launch India’s first spacecraft to Mars: Critics of Britain’s aid programme in the country have also been angered by the mission. The UK gives India around 300m each year.” Even our own Harsh Mander had termed the mission as a “remarkable indifference to the dignity” of the poor.
Not even poverty. It has to be “overwhelming poverty”. Who was India to launch into space? Apparently, the other countries engaged in scientific research faced no poverty. For Australia, which has no space programme, the space aspirations are extremely pragmatically driven. On the other hand, a prestige-oriented country like Malaysia is intent on putting astronauts in space. This event is monumental for every Indian. Imagine how the Americans felt when they first landed on moon. This is a landmark work for Indian scientists and every Indian is filled with pride, just as the 1960s Americans were filled with the pride as Armstrong made his stride. Our Mars mission was completed in just 14 months and $74 million with little prior expertise. More importantly, the mission got off the ground on the first try. China, Japan and Russia have had to abort Mars missions in the past two decades due to launch failures. That is an outstanding engineering feat worth of salute. The probe travelled a mind-boggling distance of more than 650 million, or 65 crore kilometres, gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and imagination. ISRO has, in fact, accurately navigated the spacecraft, through a route known to very few.
Why does India needs a Mars programme? Primarily because India needs to prove its technological capabilities as it is building up the technology hub of the future—not just space, but everything. If we can launch a successful Mars mission at the cost of Hollywood film, we can just do about anything. There are both direct and intangible effects of this demonstration. This would really benefit India’s tech companies. It is exciting for children and teenagers, many of whom might take up a career in science, technology and research. ISRO is already using its technology to help other countries put their equipment in space, for a lucrative fee, of course. If we continue to innovate in cost and speed, we could become a big hub for space projects. That would mean employment for thousands of engineers and lot of foreign exchange earnings. The nation is putting itself into a strong position in international markets for space products and services.
Four years ago, India helped confirm that there is water on moon—the confirmation of which has eluded global researchers for five decades. This mission sent to detect methane could be the start of a new life for Indian science. We need our Renaissance. We have to start breaking the chain of poverty by thinking outside the box. If we can reach Mars, we can do anything—from politics, arts to science and sports. An ecstatic Prime Minister Modi, who is also India’s minister for Space has said, “History has been created today, we have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible.”
India still remains a small player in a global space industry that has grown to $314 billion in revenues. Experts say Mars success can help ISRO attract a lot of business. With 30 Indian and 40 foreign satellite launches so far, India’s nearest competition is China, which is armed with bigger space launchers, but all this is going to change. This success would be an important advertisement for business of sending satellites and spacecraft aloft at a fraction of the cost of U.S. and European competitors. India’s Mars orbiter, the Prime Minister noted had been built indigenously, in a pan-Indian effort, stretching from Bangalore to Bhubaneswar, and Faridabad to Rajkot. Two-thirds of the craft’s parts were made by Indian companies such as Larsen & Toubro and Godrej & Boyce. India, which currently has around 35 satellites in Earth orbit for communication, television broadcasting and remote sensing, last year launched its first military satellite to gather naval intelligence. In June, ISRO put five foreign satellites into space in a single launch. The road ahead for India’s space programme is long; we will certainly emerge as leaders in space science.