India’s Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission has received worldwide attention, but the response back home has been considerably more muted.
Critics of the programme point out that a mission to Mars offers few practical comforts for the estimated 269 million Indians eking out a rural living with inadequate levels of nutrition, healthcare and sanitation, and many millions living below the official poverty line of 50 cents a day.
However, Mangalyaan has been praised at home as both an outstanding technological achievement and – rarely for a high technology programme in India – one that was achieved on schedule and within budget.
According to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), space exploration missions such as Mangalyaan and the earlier Chandrayaan Moon orbiter (launched in 2008), constitute only 5% of its budget. Yet, they offer an enormous technological challenge to its scientists. With the other 95% of its spending, ISRO insists that it remains focused on its core activities of building indigenous launchers and satellites for India’s space programme.
India’s annual budget for space programmes stands at approximately $1.1 billion and during the 12th Plan period (2012-17), 58 missions are planned, including 33 satellite missions and 25 launch vehicle missions. India’s space programme has arguably been far more successful than its other efforts in very high technology areas, including civilian atomic energy or efforts to develop a home-grown defence aerospace industry through its Defence Research and Development Organisation.
India’s space programme has seen two major operational space systems being established: the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) for telecommunication, television broadcasting and meteorological services, and the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite for natural resource monitoring and management. At present, 10 operational INSAT/GSAT communication satellites are available across the country.
Another success has been the development of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) family, which has now undertaken 24 successful flights including for Mangalyaan. The larger Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) still needs to prove its reliability, however, having racked up five failures in seven attempts. The latest GSLV launch attempt, in August 2013, was scrubbed owing to a fuel leak. The launch is now scheduled for 15 December.
Remarkably, ISRO has spent a mere $75 million on the Mangalyaan mission, an astoundingly small budget for a project so complex. By comparison, Alfonso Cuarón's acclaimed 2013 space epic Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, was made at an estimated budget of $100 million.
And, NASA will spend approximately $500 million on its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) Project orbiter mission, due to lift off from Cape Canaveral on 18 November.