India kicked off its 65th year of independence this week by unveiling ambitious plans to send a mission to Mars by the end of next year. Standing beneath the looming, 17th century Red Fort in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that the government had approved the Mars Orbiter Mission, which aims to send a spacecraft near the surface of the Red Planet to collect information. He called the program “a huge step for us in the area of science and technology.”
Though the news may have lost some thunder after the successful landing of the Curiosity rover, it does show the kind of ambition and big thinking that many wish the Indian government displayed more often. India’s space program has managed to get a lot done, despite operating at a proposed budget of $1.34 billion this year (by comparison, NASA’s 2013 budget is $17.7 billion). Started in the 1960s, India’s program has developed a successful satellite regime and is currently preparing its first manned mission to space. In 2009, the program pulled off a major coup in the international community when its first lunar mission, in cooperation with NASA, detected water on the surface of the moon.
Critics in India immediately reacted to yesterday’s news by questioning the priorities of an administration willing to spend billions of rupees in space when so much needs to get done on the ground. Just weeks ago, the government had the embarrassing distinction of overseeing the largest power outage in human history. It was an event that, while more shocking to people outside India than people who live there, was symptomatic of wider systemic problems contributing to India’s economic slowdown. In his Independence Day speech, Singh also acknowledged these challenges. “If we do not increase the pace of the country’s economic growth, take steps to encourage new investment in the economy, improve the management of government finances and work for the livelihood security of the common man and energy security of the country,” he cautioned, “it most certainly affects our national security.”
Others in the industry are saying the project is moving too fast. The Mars spacecraft is expected to launch in November 2013, a decision based on the planets’ positions at that time. “There is a small window in which we need to make a launch,” Kiran Karnik of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) told CNN-IBN. But the current rocket technology that the agency plans to use could hamper the mission. The amount of equipment the craft would be able to take with it under projected conditions is “very meager,” former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair told CNN-IBN in the same interview. “I don’t think much useful science can be done.”
What they’ll try to do is gather information that will help study the possibility of life on Mars. It mirrors Curiosity, which, as Jeffrey Kluger wrote in TIME’s cover story on the rover landing last week, “will study the geology, chemistry and possible biology of Mars, looking for signs of carbon, methane and other organic fingerprints on a world that a few billion years ago was warm and fairly sloshing with water.”
So what, with data from Curiosity and six other rovers that have landed on Mars, can India’s new orbiter add to the mix? Plenty, says Artemis Westenberg, the president of Explore Mars, an international nonprofit dedicated to sending humans to Mars. “You’d think we’d have everything we need, but it’s not true,” she says. “We just threw a rover on Mars [carrying] 75 kg of equipment, but there are always 20 more things we would have liked to put on there … There’s always room for more.” There’s always room for something new too. Some of the equipment that is currently exploring the Red Planet is dated. “It might have been state of the art in 2000, but it’s not state of the art in 2012,” says Westenberg. “Are you still using your five-year-old phone?”
No, and many argue that just as outdated is the idea that India should curb its pursuit of state-of-the-art technology. “You don’t have to be wealthy to want to climb Mount Everest. Poverty has got nothing to do with the human urge to explore, to push boundaries, to go where no man has gone before,” Susmita Mohanty, founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up, writes in an e-mail. “It is important that we build our own satellites and have our own rockets to launch them. Information is power, so is communication, and satellites are key to both. They are a necessity, not a luxury.”
They’re also an investment. Space programs have always captured attention in a way that other government-run programs can’t. Just as Curiosity’s landing came at a sweet spot for President Obama in his tough re-election campaign, so might a widely celebrated mission to Mars prove handy in India to the Congress-led government a few months before general elections are scheduled in 2014. And to take the longer view, is $80 million — the estimated cost of the Mars orbiter — so much to spend to spark the imagination of an entire generation of children? “Spending $70 million or $90 million on a science project is not a bad idea if you want to keep your youth interested in technology,” says Westenberg. “One in 7 people on the planet right now is Indian. I think that’s pretty cheap.”