MOM??? But why???

“The moment this mission was named MOM, I knew it would not disappoint. Moms never fail”. With these words, Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi announced ISRO’s success in reaching Mars’ orbit on September 24, 2014. Who knew the prime minister is so good at PJs and yet a very effective speaker.

In the next few days, media widely covered MOM’s success and with that, anyone who has the slightest connection to media came to know about MOM. Many facts about Mars Obiter Mission (MOM) were tossed around in media and rightfully so. With the success of MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission), India has become only the fourth country (or group of countries) to reach the Mars, other three being United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union. Going to the mars itself may not seem the big news to many but, succeeding it in its first try is pretty impressive when not any other country in the world had been successful in reaching to mars on its first try and when more than half of the attempts made by different space agencies in the world have failed. Yes, you read it right, 23 out of 40 missions to reach mars including Japan’s 1999 and China’s 2011 missions have been failed.

One may argue that years of research and technological advances done by NASA and other space agencies might have made it easy for ISRO to be successful in its first try, but at the same time anyone who has been to India or lives in India, knows how big of a deal it is to get a space program in itself and to get to Mars — not to mention in its first try — when half of the country’s population is below poverty line and Millions of people don’t even have clean water or as basic necessities as toilets in their homes.

While the whole nation and most of the educated & aware people around the world applauded ISRO’s achievement, there are many who opposed and criticized India’s space programs. Again, there aren’t many educated people who oppose any country’ s space programs, yet in last few days, I came to know quite a few people (Indian and foreigners) who were very critical of ISRO and their programs. Most of the time, the sole reason to oppose the space programs tends to be ignorance or misinformation of these kinds of programs and their value to society as well as to the nation’s good. While foreigners tend to find India a poor country with many people needing basic amenities, it is not surprising to find them criticizing space program. Also, when more than half of the population of a country is below the poverty line and struggles to make ends meet, it is understandable to find them getting frustrated with government spending so much money in programs that don’t seem directly affecting their lives.

Without trying to justify anything or taking sides let us just try to look objectively at the benefits of having various ISRO’s space programs. One of the criticisms of ISRO comes from an uneducated view that ISRO is taking a large chunk of government money to fund its programs and thus forcing the government to neglect other issues such as poverty. It is essential to note that ISRO’s annual allotted budget for 2013–2014 is $950 Million, which is about 0.33% of the total Indian budget. Now, compare that with the NASA’s budget for 2013, about $18 Billion which is 0.5% of the total USA budget and almost 19 times more than ISRO’s budget.

If we want to get an idea about government spending on poverty programs, we can compare space programs’ funding ($950M) with other government initiatives like Employment program (NREGA) that gets a budget of $7.24 Billion (Almost eight times more than ISRO’s total budget) or Subsidized / free food program (FSB) that has a budget allocation of $20 Billion (Almost twenty-one times more than ISRO’s total budget). We can see that space programs get a fraction of the funding government spends on other necessary programs. Thus, We can safely say that we are not funding ISRO more on account of other essential and important government programs.

It is very easy to just assume that ISRO’s main task is to go to space in their cool spaceships; However, ISRO’s main object (or any scientist’s for that matter) is to collect data. The main task of any science is to collect and analyze data so that we can solve problems or learn more about the world we live in. ISRO has been so good at their job of collecting data that, according to V.K. Dhavan — President of Indian Society of Remote Sensing — it has helped increase the productivity of farming sector by 7 percentages and thus helping the farm sector to contribute about Rs. 50,000 Crore to national GDP over the years. And no these are not just random numbers thrown by some politicians; these are actual studies done by premier economic research institute NCAER. Not only that but when fishing community used these remote sensing data, they contributed Rs. 24,000 Crore to the GDP and saved 30 percent of fuel consumption with the help of timely updates on sea condition, fishing zones, and weather.

Now, let’s remember Cyclone Phalin storm of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh — the strongest storm to hit the state in 14 years — that impacted 12 Million people from Odisha and left more than 100,000 people from both states stranded. With the help of ISRO’s 11 remote sensing satellites, National Remote Sensing Centre in Hyderabad was able to forecast the cyclones more than 72 hours in advance and thus helping to save lives of Indian citizens. A country as vast as India benefits a lot in communication sector from ISRO’s remote sensing and communication programs like IRS and INSATs to connect its remote areas at the same time also benefiting in building an essential infrastructure for the country.

One of the main reasons to fund ISRO is that it is a self-funded body. It generates revenue by helping foreign countries in satellite launches and by selling satellite data and imageries through its Antrix Subsidiary — Antrix Corporation Limited. In the year 2013–2014, the turnover of Antrix was Rs. 13 Billion, which was way more than ISRO’s allocated government budget. In fact, the primary objective of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is to showcase India’s rocket launch systems, spacecraft-building, and operations capabilities. Specifically, the primary objective is to develop the technologies required for design, planning, management and operations of an interplanetary mission.

While media is celebrating ISRO’s first attempt success, it also didn’t forget to mention the budget of this mission. With $73 Million (Rs. 450 Crore) budget, MOM became cheapest Mars mission and it became very popular among media to compare MOM’s budget with Gravity’s (a Hollywood Sci-Fi Movie) budget of $100 Million. Even when Mr. Prime Minister very conveniently compared MOM’s budget to a Hollywood movie budget, one cannot help but notice that he himself — and again very conveniently — neglects to compare MOM’s budget to any other government programs such as his own dream project “Statue of Unity” — The grand statue of Sardar Patel on the bank of river Narmada which has a budget of Rs 2,980 crore — almost four times more than project MOM.

So, before we criticize ISRO, we should take the time to understand its value to the country. And we should always remind ourselves that investment in science and technology has never failed humankind.

September 27, 2014