From Wikipedia

The Real Problem with India’s Mission to Mars Is Not Poverty, You Idiots.

What the attention-grabbing sensationalist headlines have ultimately done is derail a true scientific debate and channel all our attention towards unscientific and irrational debates about space exploration.

Countering senseless editorials written by the remnants of a colonial past is one thing but extrapolating that to establish India’s Rs 450C mission to Mars as justified is rubbish. Not to forget, it’s a self-trap.

When the former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair offered his commentary on Mangalyaan, it was swept under the carpet by a handful of counter arguments that called attention to his own conduct in the Antrix episode and cited professional rivalry. Worse still, his measured criticism was clubbed with absolute pieces of crap from the likes of James Fenner and swadesi hypocrites.

But Nair has a point.

Commendable as it is for its success and frugality, India’s mission to Mars is not definitely a “resourceful” mission as many have had you believe under a patriotic fervor. And no, I’m certainly not talking about India’s poverty or budget allocation decisions here.

The main premise of Nair’s argument — which was both acknowledge and partially criticized by Scientific Advisor and eminent Indian scientist, CNR Rao — does not question the “need” to explore the red planet. His premise — and the theme of this article — is to question the “resourcefulness” of Mangalyaan. And in the process of uncovering the facts one realizes that ISRO’s Mangalyaan did indeed turn out to be a hasty spend despite a low-profile display of indigenous capabilities that caught the lime-light last week.

If India successfully places Mangalyaan around Mars, the orbiter would be beaming back data that is already available. Or at best, data with a sub-standard value. Quite uninterestingly, here lies the crux of true scientific criticism.

We spent Rs. 386Cr on Chandrayaan-I. This mission took five years to realize and, at that time, Nair was the chief of ISRO. How much of his vision, guidance and technical leadership went into the project is debatable but one important takeaway from this factoid is that Nair’s present criticism of Mangalyaan is firmly based on the successful Moon mission.

Our first and successful mission to Moon was a feat of sorts not just technically but financially too.

We spent less than Rs 400Cr (less than 10% of ISRO’s total budget allocation) not just to put our satellite in an orbit around the moon but accomplish much more. The Chandrayaan mission carried six foreign satellites (including those built by JPL [NASA] and the European Space Agency) and it also carried the Moon Impact Probe (besides four other payloads from India).

It is surprising to note that James Fenner did not write about India’s poverty when we launched Chandrayaan but the impact probe did invite some criticism from within the scientific fraternity. And it was not misplaced or unscientific criticism.

Perhaps Chandrayaan accomplished nothing unique to the fraternity of space (and particularly, lunar) exploration but it did establish ISRO’s ‘technology demonstrator’ credo. Furthermore, it put many useful satellites into lunar orbit. One more mission that spectacularly displayed our indigenous capabilities in a low-key way that only a few developing nations are capable of.

In comparison, Mangalyaan — when it finally begins to beam back to our stations — would be offering data that is already available. If Nair were to be believed, the data would be of sub-standard value as the orbiter is equipped with instruments that could’ve been made much more powerful. Not to forget that according to the mission, the orbiter would be flying not very close to the Martian surface.

To summarize, the true human spirit of space exploration appears to be lacking in the case of our mission to Mars.

Incidentally, this part of Nair’s criticism has been conveniently avoided by all counter-arguments offered by the government and other authorities involved in the project. They did debunk Nair’s other criticism — about the deficiency of communication transponders — so that makes us wonder why their statements did not offer an explanation to the quality of instruments aboard Mangalyaan or to the mission’s shallow objectives.

And that’s where the paltry Rs 450Cr suddenly gains a debatable color. The argument — I must remind you — is still not about spending Rs 450Cr on a Mars mission. It’s about spending “responsibly” on a Mars mission.

What the attention-grabbing sensationalist headlines have ultimately done is derail a true scientific debate and channel all our attention towards unscientific and irrational debates about space exploration.

If you are with me so far, we must proceed to explore the “why” behind Mangalyaan. Why did India have to pursue Mars? And why so cheap? What was the scientific/technological motivation? And what are we trying to prove and to whom?

ISRO’s culture of space has been — so far — earth-centric. To borrow a common term, our endeavors have been nothing “fanciful”. Instead, over the years, ISRO has put into orbit satellites that are widely used in remote sensing, weather, disaster management, agriculture, communication and even education. We don’t have a 50-50 split in resourceful launches and space-exploration launches. Almost all of the budget goes towards building things that are immediately useful for our country’s economy.

In fact, this has been the hallmark of our space organization. We have relentlessly followed a moral principle to put useful projects ahead of any other “fanciful” space exploration that could have been funded easily had people like K Kasturirangan and Madhavan Nair pushed forward.

At the time of Chandrayaan, less than 10% of the total budget allotted to ISRO was channeled towards the lunar mission. By way of guesstimates, mission to Mars must have cost us just a little over 10% of the total budget ISRO received in the previous fiscal. This is why CNR Rao claimed that the money spent was “peanuts”.

But can this “peanuts” claim be supplied as a justification to what appears to be a premature Mars mission? I think not.

Nair’s criticism was in line with the core principle of ISRO’s moral responsibility towards our country and, by extension, towards our planet. Mangalyaan could have been turned into a far more useful project in many ways: more payload, better instruments, collaboration with other agencies (which would have tested their trust in our capabilities which in turn would have been a validation of the same).

We have to wait a year to truly grasp the full value of Mangalyaan but I doubt that it would turn out to be much more valuable than what it could have potentially — and easily — been. But if the mission was brimming with such possibilities, why didn’t we wait for the full gestation period? That’s a question with several answers none completely true and none completely false.

One of the answers falls into the ambit of space race (notably with China). Another says may be we were showing off. Both these answers appear absurd and to a certain extent are, but we have to be critically truthful of our motives and our ambitions. The policy makers of ISRO have to look inwards and evaluate the motives uncompromisingly.

Whatever the reason, “technology demonstrator” — the official mission objective — turns out to be shallow when you weigh it against the missed opportunities.

What is certainly worthy of full credit is that ISRO demonstrated two things: it could plan and execute a mission to Mars in under 3 years and it could do it for “peanuts”.

But in pursuit of this technology demonstration, did we just step out of our unwritten moral code that swears allegiance to “loka-hitaaya”-centric work ethic? Surely, it is not a grave matter. However, if this is going to be the first of many such premature or bootstrap missions, ISRO might appear in the distant future morally bankrupt even if it truly is not. The risk, then, lies in the tightening of purse strings controlled by bureaucrats who are often found to have absolutely no bearing of the spirit of science, research and long-term technological experimentation with no quick returns.

Nobody in their right minds is saying that India shouldn’t pursue interplanetary missions like Mangalyaan. We should and we must. But this exploration — and all others about to succeed it — should be about understanding the planets, understanding the optimal path to space exploration that has, often, no immediate benefit and then, finally, about understanding our capabilities of getting things done faster and cheaper.

If we put greater emphasis on the last item, we’re doing space exploration wrong. Remember, we still haven’t mastered GSLV.