ast Wednesday and a week after this column last appeared, billions of Indians woke up very early and switched on their TV sets.
A kind of hush had fallen over the normally-verbose and decibel-strong television channels of India. All of them stayed focused on a large hall at India’s Space Research Organization ISRO in Bangalore where dozens of scientists sat glued to their computer screens. There was palpable tension in the air. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose sartorial tastes always match the occasion -- he was dressed, this time, in a red jacket -- stared at a digital clock. The count-down had begun. India’s Mars spacecraft, named Mangalyaan (Sankrit for Mars-Vehicle), which had been launched late last year, was just about to enter the orbit of the red planet. The country’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), was its first attempt to reach Mars. But both Japan and China had tried and failed, in 2003 and 2011 respectively. What if India’s MOM turned out to be a damp squib too ?
Suddenly there was a roar. The normally studious scientists - many of them, demure women wearing jasmine flowers and Kanjeevaram saris - leapt into the air, hugged each other, thumped each others’ backs. Mangalyaan had met with success, and had just tweeted ‘howdy’, to NASA’s Curiosity Rover, already trawling the red planet. “Namaste, Mangalyaan”, the US craft tweeted back. Across the subcontinent and around the world, millions of Indians went wild with joy.
The achievement was a first in many ways: India became the first Asian country to succeed, but also the only in the world to do so at first go. It had now joined the Elite Club whose other members are the United States, Russia and Europe. And it had made economic history by spending only US$74 million on MOM, a fraction of what the Mars missions of the other countries had cost.
The low-cost was achieved mainly by recycling many components. It effectively silenced all those who mumble about India’s poverty index, whenever ISRO sends a rocket up. This writer had done so too -- on a television debate on the subject last year. But watching those hard-working scientists reap the fruits of their labour made all my apprehensions vanish. They deserved their moment in the sun, on Mars.
Further, and as Indian industrialist Mukesh Ambani pointed out at a business conclave the following day, India’s Mars mission had cost less than SLR14 per kilometer - the “price of a tuk-tuk ride in India.”
Since 1969, ISRO has built weather and communication satellites, satellite launch vehicles and has often been used as a cost-effective transporter by Europe, Canada and many countries to launch their own satellites. In 2008, India had even sent an unmanned mission to the Moon. ISRO now plans a manned mission to the celestial satellite.
Mangalyaan will orbit Mars for six months and gather scientific data. But it is not expected to bring back any new revelations. MOM was primarily a demonstration of how recycled technology can make space exploration cheaper. But how did ISRO do it so cheaply ?
Dr. Chaitanya Giri, researcher of Indian origin at the Max-Planck Institute (considered the best in the world) for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany points to several factors.
MOM and its entire infrastructure used what are aptly known as “heritage components”, that is, those which had proven their efficacy through repeated tests. For instance and instead of its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which is the more suitable vehicle for planetary exploration, ISRO launched Mangalyaan on its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which is normally used to launch remote sensing and communications satellites into Earth’s Orbit. ISRO also sent up only 15 kgs of “payload”, that is, five scientific instruments, thus reducing the weight. And finally, the satellite bus, that is the structural hardware of the spacecraft too, was not newly developed but one already in existence.
But why weren’t other countries been able to cut costs in the same manner?
“An important factor is the duration of a space-mission since it involves development, maintenance and human resources,” says Giri. “MOM’s duration of three years is pretty brief.”
And what lessons are India and other developing countries going to learn ?
“Developing countries are often bogged down by a lack of management skills and cost-effective solutions,” points out Giri. “MOM beat that conundrum. It was developed in the shortest possible time, it met all scheduled deadlines. As Prime Minister Modi said recently, MOM can be viewed as a model of efficiency, one that can be emulated in various developmental structures such as agriculture, irrigation, transportation. Instead of being stupefied by the daunting challenge of the mission, ISRO personnel efficiently and skillfully managed MOM. That is important. Developed and developing countries need such skilled personnel, those who are dedicated, disciplined and not jingoistic.”
Despite what scientists say, there has been wild speculation in public forums on what Mangalyaan will find on Mars: whether there is methane, whether there is life and even whether there is water enough for trees to grow.
“Some of the theories doing the rounds are improbable,” said Giri. “Methane is no indication of biological life. Indeed, methane is present abundantly on comets, on Saturn’s moon Titan and on several moons of Neptune and Uranus. And water has already been discovered in the form of ice at various locations on Mars, so there is no novelty to that speculation either. What I look forward to is the unprecedented opportunity that the elliptical orbit of MOM will have to capture images of Deimos and Phobos, the two moons of Mars.”
Meanwhile back on Planet New Delhi, ordinary Indians too said they were thrilled about the achievement.
“Whether Mars has life on it or not, it feels good that India beat China and all of Asia,” said office assistant Radhey Behra, as he dropped his children off at school in the Indian capital last Wednesday. “Those scientists can’t be stupid for sending this mission up if we are to gain nothing. If not now, I am sure future generations will surely benefit from this success.”
(The writer is a senior foreign correspondent for the European media and native to New Delhi. Delhiberations is exclusive to The Dailymirror).