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Commentary

Off Topic: Don’t Undermine The Mission to Mars

Balaji Viswanathan has a great post on Indian Space Mission, Poverty and Closet Racism, on how western journalists have portrayed India’s recent Mars mission launch as something terrible because we have all this poverty. And I agree with his point this is utterly distasteful. Those journalists and commentators have this kind of view:

This might sound funny, but the point really is: We can do many things at the same time. Poverty won’t go away in a day, and you know what, the efforts of ISRO to launch satellites will actually help reduce poverty in a small way. India manufactures nearly every component of the launch vehicle and satellite, and hundreds of jobs are created this way.

Then there’s the added advantage of being able to put your satellites in space which will eventually help us create disaster recovery communication (when land tower based phones don’t work), last mile TV, weather, granular GPS navigation and so on.

I’ve been to SHAR at Sriharikota where our launches happen. I learnt that India has one of the toughest places to launch (since all launches must be designed to go over as little land as possible in case of a malfunction). We also had to learn with very little failure because we couldn’t afford failure – and India has, it seems, one of the lowest rates of failure in its process.

We had to get technology from Russia for cryogenic engines that use liquid propellants that could put satellites into a geostationary orbit. (Moving just to the point where the earths gravity and rotational push keep the satellite in the same position relative to earth). But when the Russians denied it to us, we went and built our own. And now we’re one of six countries that can.

This is a great story. It’s just like our IT companies, or telcos that now provide nearly India-wide telephony. Why does it have to be said that we’re doing this “despite our poverty”?

The space research program has actually directly helped in one phenomenal instance. Dr. Abdul Kalam, who headed ISRO (before he became the Indian President), during a visit to a hospital, figured out a way that all that research could help in one way. From his speech:

During my visit to one of the hospitals in Hyderabad, I found many children were struggling to walk with an artificial limb (pros-thetic) weighing over 3 kgs. At the request of Prof. Prasad of NIMS, Head of orthopedic department at that time, I asked my AGNI friends why we cannot use the composite material used for AGNI heat shield for fabricating Floor Reaction Orthosis (FROs) prosthetics for polio affected patients. They immediately said it is possible. We worked on this project for sometime and came up with a FRO prosthetic limb for children weighing around 300 gms in place of 3 kg. Exactly, 1/10th of the weight which the child was carrying. The doctors helped us to fit the new light weight pros-the-tic on the children and the children started walking, smiling and running around. With the light weight device provided by the hospital they could run, ride a bicycle and do all sorts of things which they had been denied for a long time.

Wow.

Most inventions are accidental. People don’t make the great things they make because they sought out to make great things. Mostly, great things are an adjunct second thought, a “pivot” from an original idea. Our space research will also deliver great things eventually – after all, didn’t the US NASA contribute to the creation of the Internet?

This latest satellite launch is our wizardry. At $75 million it costs very little as does ISRO by itself. We do need a higher sanitation budget or a higher education budget but this kind of money will not even make a tiny dent. None of this “denies” money to other projects.

People who think this is a waste of money should think again. It’s already paid us back.

  • Sanjeev B says:

    Great perspective Deepak. Well said.
    We can be mature enough to avoid the jingoism and really value space technology for all its direct as well as ancillary benefits.
    And in the process if it brings science to the forefront and makes it part of our culture, it will have paid back infinitely more than what it cost.

  • Guruprasad V says:

    This provides great biz opportunity. Cost is unbelievably less compared to other countries. If someone have intelligence they could sense biz opportunity and make use of it.

  • dheeraj says:

    Did Kalam ever head ISRO?
    I doubt it.
    He was with DRDO.

    • Shiva says:

      Very much. From wiki”In 1969, Kalam was transferred to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) where he was the project director of India’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III) which successfully deployed the Rohini satellite in near earth orbit in July 1980.”

      • dheeraj says:

        Well, I said he never headed it.
        Not, that he was never a part of it.
        There’s a difference between the two.

        • dheeraj says:

          For the record,
          Kalam never “headed” ISRO.
          He was a project director of the SLV program. Satish Dhawan was head of ISRO at that time. UR Rao succeeded Dhawan as head of ISRO, followed by Kasturirangan, Madhavan Nair and now K Radhakrishnan.
          Kalam headed DRDO between 1992 and 1999.

  • rajivahuja says:

    I truly think this programme will help our country.

  • Shiva says:

    Though I very much support ISRO’s missions, this one along with Chandrayaan were definitely not in the right spirit. One can understand launching remote sensing satellites or communcation satellites. But why go after Moon and Mars just to be also-rans, that too do what US did way back in 1970’s ? Instead if ISRO focuses on better satellites say with better resolutions etc,we can further boost our image sensing capabilties. Our technology lags other developed countries in terms of satellite imaging. For ex, US can observe with pinpoint accuracy any part of the world with the best resolution ( measured in cms not meters !!!). We are not even close. Just imagine if we had such capability, we can kick ass each & every terrorist crossing the J&K border & even go after naxals. We can even monitor floods,landslides accurately. This lack of focus on end-user benefits is all that is missing….

    • But I argue the exact opposite. We should do those things but we should also do these things. Its in doing multiple things that amazing things happen. What we might develop as a result of building something that can travel much longer distances might actually eventually improve our remote sensing and communication technology.

      • gaun says:

        There is a need for satellites which help us in better understanding and basic research which can focus on just our earth. Also although the focus is just on the satellites and putting it in orbit in the media the unsung heroes are the sensors within these satellites which are the real brains and also the unsung heroes are the scientists/engineers who make these unbelievalbly complicated sensors and this has been lacking or there is very little focus or they are so clunky/bad precision that most of the results are useless. What the general media/public don’t understand is that engineering nowadays is very very high precision and high precision is always very complicated. If the instruments are not precise enough its just a huge waste of money. I would definitely understand if they are trying and we should try and fail as many times but I don’t feel they have tried enough or at least what they have tried has not even been in the public domain which was is funded by us.
        This mission like some of the other missions may not be done in the right scientific spirit. What is the roadmap? What are they building on top of this? Are these even clear? and this my tax money.
        Also I don’t understand why the details of this scientific research not available to Indian citizens. All the papers should be made available. Haven’t we funded this?
        Also I feel things like ardusat [ http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/575960623/ardusat-your-arduino-experiment-in-space ] is the way to go. Good stuff comes when people collaborate not reinvent yet another wheel.

  • Siddharth says:

    Well Said – terrific perspective.
    One more thing her which may put India’s Mars mission in perspective (cost basis)
    Hollywood sci-fi movie Gravity was on a budget of $100 million and Indian mars mission was accomplished at $75 million – let those NY journalist chew on that one. 🙂

  • sometimesbullsometimesbear says:

    With 5 instruments and an elliptical orbit to mars what is this 450 crore toy going to achieve?
    Why was the mission rushed? Was it to time before the elections? The tragedy is u will get to know these answers only after 300 days coz that is the time this toy will take to reach Mars.
    It is my hard earned tax money and I have a right to question it.
    I would rather have live satellite imaging that can pick up even a rat slithering into a gutter hole at night very clearly
    and
    Combined with a high precision guided drone that has the capability to bust that rat with minimum collateral damage!!!!
    This govt has been going soft on home grown terrorists and across the border terrorists and maoists with the mistaken notion that it might antagonize its local vote bank. How foolish and how bizarrre!!! Some of them even refuse to name the IM in tv debates and squirm in their chairs when asked about IM and its activities? What the hell is going on!!!!
    I do not need a family to decide what to do with the taxes I pay the government. I do not want a dual power structure which is unconstitutional by the way!!!
    I want accountability and transparency!!!

    • Well I disagree. I think it’s a great achievement in science, and it doesn’t have to come “after” other things. We are btw, having a GSLV launch on Dec 15 (after the snags on Aug 20) which will give us our own geosynchronous satellite. So that’s also on the cards.
      There is work on some kind of drone technology but obviously details are sketchy. That’s a different department and is paid for by the defense budget.

  • sometimesbullsometimesbear says:

    We agree to disagree.
    Achievements are always accepted and hats off to the scientists always.
    The point is why are goons who pretend to be our leaders manipulate even these achievements to suit their selfish ends? That is the point.
    Did u see the scientist Nambi Narayanan and the squirming and pretending to be a Saint ex cop Sreekumar on Times Now?

  • Srinivas says:

    Interesting perspectives.
    Some view points seem to mix two three issues and raising confusion. One can not jointly compare two different issues with the same yard stick. Poverty and science is one such.
    True, poverty need to be eradicated. However, unless we progress, we cannot be self reliant and wealthy enough to eradicate poverty. Til 15-20 years back, we were depending heavily on foreign inputs for many things, security is one such. Over the period we became reasonably self reliant in many areas, due to multifarious initiatives in various fields, parallelly. As a comparison we can take Pakistan. they are not able to say no to US(drone attacks and all), simply because, they are dependent on US money and weapons. For us, it is not the case. Also, due to rise in power in various areas, the stance of US and other nations changed considerably over a period. Thus self reliance helps us.
    Another view expressed was, why we have to invest, when we can purchase. Here may be we are forgetting cost benefit analysis. Frugal engineering is a concept recently originated in India, which denotes achieving an objective at a considerably lower price. In these scientific expeditions, the benefit actually is two fold. We get to know the research output, and if we do it on our own, we get new tech / improve existing one. Post second nuclear test, an embargo on tech transfer, denied us access to many inputs, but ISRO and other defence organisations successfully overcame this hurdle and flourished.
    Another aspect well pointed out was, it is not ISRO alone who can take the full credit. There are many other agencies which contributed to the success, though major share goes to ISRO. This was pointed out by K Radhakrishnan in his address. Hence in a projet of this magnitude whole lot of tech companies etc will develop new technologies and software, which will be used for other purposes subsequently.
    This said, I have to point out a pertinent aspect of poverty alleviation here. It is the lack of control(leakages/proper execution etc) which is blunting our effort to alleviate poverty. We are working on poverty alleviation via subsidies and other welfare projects. But, as per a report < 20% reaches the target population. Here the issue is physical measures are not able to control this leakages. A tech solution like AADHAR is comming to our help. Can we argue that the amout spent on this project is a waste?

  • Rohan Choukkar says:

    Another perspective:
    Cost of mission: INR 450 cr
    Average Earth-Mars distance: 225 million km
    Assuming that this mission is a success, we get a figure of INR 20 per km. Which compares favourably with taxi fares in Delhi and Bangalore. Someone just took a very, very long ride…..
    http://www.taxiautofare.com/taxi-fare-card/Delhi-Taxi-fare
    http://www.taxiautofare.com/taxi-fare-card/Bengaluru-Auto-fare