The Little Space Program That Could

The Little Space Program That Could

By Melissa Pandika

05 Nov 2013, Sriharikota, India --- India's Mars bound rocket and Mars satellite blasted off on November 5, 2013 from India's launch pad. India ready to rendezvous with the Red planet Mars the journey has begun in its $ 100 million mission the Indian Space Research Organization has sent a large refrigerator sized unmanned satellite called Mangalyaan to orbit Mars for studying the thin Martian atmosphere. India seeks to beat China in this 21 st century Asian space race. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lifted off on its 25 th m --- Image by © Pallava Bagla/Corbis
SourcePallava Bagla/Corbis


Because India may be the most promising underdog in the universe – literally.

By Melissa Pandika

Long renowned for its technological talent, India is now taking its ingenuity out of this world — literally. Make way, universe: There’s a scrappy new contender in the space race.  

Last November, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the country’s first-ever Mars Orbiter Mission , or Mangalayaan — Hindi for “Mars Craft.” Weighing about 1.5 tons and measuring roughly the size of a refrigerator, the unmanned, gold-foiled probe is expected to reach the red planet’s orbit in September, around the same time as NASA’s MAVEN satellite.

Even more impressive? MOM’s shoestring budget: $75 million, or roughly .01 the cost of NASA’s MAVEN Mars mission.

Although designed to show that India has the technological capability to reach Mars, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also spend 6 to 10 months conducting a series of scientific experiments, including scoping the atmosphere for methane — a sign that the planet might support life.

View from back of room of mission control

Monitoring the Mars Orbiter Mission in Bangalore, India.

Source Jagadeesh/AP

That’s assuming all goes well. So far, two-thirds of Mars missions have fizzled. If ISRO succeeds, it would be the first Asian space program to join the elite Mars explorers club, which includes the Soviet space program, the European Space Agency and NASA. Then again, it’s not the first time ISRO has defied expectations; its Chandrayaan-1 probe is credited with discovering water molecules on the Moon in 2009.

Rocket in laboratory being worked on by 1 person in smock on right of it.

India’s Mars-bound rocket and Mars satellite blasted off on November 5, 2013.

Source Pallava Bagla/Corbis

Even more impressive? MOM’s shoestring budget: $75 million, or roughly one-tenth the cost of NASA’s MAVEN Mars mission. From its cost effectiveness to its launch strategy, MOM has been hailed as a model of what may be India’s greatest talent — a kind of frugal ingenuity, or jugaad, as it’s known locally. 

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced MOM’s approval in August 2012, giving ISRO engineers just 15 months before the interplanetary launch window — the period of time when Mars and Earth would be ideally aligned for MOM to reach its target.

How did ISRO accomplish so much, so fast, so cheap? Besides earning less than American engineers, MOM team members were “schedule-driven to the extreme ,” ratcheting their typical 18-hour workdays up to 20 during the launch period, ISRO chairman Kopillil Radhakrishnan told Forbes.

Team members were ’schedule-driven to the extreme,’ ratcheting their 18-hour workdays up to 20 during launch.

Equipment-wise, ISRO made do with what they had. Lacking a rocket with enough thrust to fire the probe directly out of Earth’s atmosphere, ISRO engineers devised a clever “slingshot” strategy: They directed the rocket to circle Earth for a month, when it would have gained enough velocity to break free from Earth’s gravitational pull and cruise toward Mars. 

Since India’s main goal is just to get to Mars, the probe’s scientific instruments are also simple, and therefore inexpensive. Weighing just over 30 pounds, they’ll snap color photographs, search for signs of water and map the planet’s surface composition.

Several members working on the spacecraft that is colored gold

Indian scientists and engineers work with their staff on the Mars orbiter spacecraft.

Source Aijaz Rahi/AP/Corbis

A special sensor will look for methane, which could indicate the presence of bacteria — “a hot topic,” said Janet Luhmann, MAVEN’s deputy principal investigator. While ground-based telescopes and Europe’s Mars Express orbiter have detected methane, NASA’s Curiosity rover hasn’t found any.

MOM’s scientific finds probably won’t be earth-shattering, but it should “provide some interesting measurements,” Luhmann said. While the scientific gains remain to be seen, “the gains from the technology and industry perspective have already been put into motion,” said Smita Srinivas, director of Columbia University’s Technological Change Lab. Besides contracting with Indian firms to build the majority of the spacecraft, ISRO has also helped these companies build a reputation as precision parts suppliers. “That could be a huge boost in having them compete in world trade,” she said.

There is a misguided belief that ’if we send a mission to Mars, that means we’re a developed country.

Economist Atanu Dey

MOM has also been a “source of great pride” for many Indians, she added. Hundreds gathered to witness the liftoff and many more tuned in to the live broadcast. “I think it’s charming that ISRO has been an organization people can be proud of when it’s quite low-key,” she said. “People will ask, ’If they can do it, why can’t others?’”

If MOM succeeds, it could boost India’s international prestige. But some question the logic of a country plagued with poverty on Earth allocating millions in public funds to exploring space. Economist Atanu Dey, author of ”Transforming India,” believes the sense of pride in the mission stems from a misguided belief that “if we send a mission to Mars, that means we’re a developed country,” he said. Indians “don’t want to feel like citizens of a backwater country.” He argues that the Mars mission funds should have been spent on pharmaceuticals, solar energy and other technology that could have directly benefited Indians. “We can’t afford window dressing,” he said.

Beyond India, MOM could ignite a burgeoning space race. With ISRO gearing up for a second lunar mission and China planning a manned lunar mission after the Chang’e 3 rover’s successful landing last month, “The interest is there,” Luhmann said. “The question is which nations will come up with the needed resources … to pursue it.”

So will a successful Mars orbit mean one giant leap forward for India? It may be months or years before we know the answer. For now, we’ll turn our gaze skyward to a dark horse that suddenly made the space race a lot more interesting.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correctly state the weight of the space probe.