India Seeing Red over Costly Mission to Mars

The country's planned mission to Mars has prompted strong reactions, particularly among those concerned about domestic issues on the ground

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RAVEENDRAN / AFP / Getty Images

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivers his speech during India's Independence Day from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15, 2012

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.

(PHOTOS: Martian Vistas: A Look at the Curiosity Rover’s New Home)

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.”

(MORE: New Delhi, We Have a Problem: India’s Space Woes)

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.”

PHOTOS: Seeing Red: 40 Years of Exploration on Mars

74 comments
Kushan joshi
Kushan joshi

 Indian government is tackling - power grid failures , terrorism , slow growth  , internal disturbances , what not . Yet we are coming up , despite so many ( by so many I mean it)  problems , you bet !

Chhajuram Induscharwak
Chhajuram Induscharwak

Big thinking may be termed as utopia without over coming of ever down going economy.

gh79
gh79

Americans might not like it but the world is flat now. Competition is global. If you cant keep up move to a country where the levels are lower. Lots of Latin American and African countries would be eager to take in out of work Americans just for their English skills. No one says you have to live out your entire life where you were born. If you dont have the work ethic to survive in the new American economy why stay and be miserable. Go somewhere where life is slower and you will be valued.

Jose Punnoose
Jose Punnoose

the mars mission will help us to study the potholes over there so that we can lay better roads on our own terra firma, this should go long way in helping Indian road infrastructure, three cheers!!!

captainjohann
captainjohann

It is India's ISRO which revealed presence of water in Moon. I think western space missions hide more than they reveal  especially the purpose. India must concentrate on Boosters first.

Harmon Tan
Harmon Tan

This is such a huge contrast to  a footbridge collapsed before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi back in 2010. You would think India as a country, should invest on the basic infrastructures.

chippy1
chippy1

Wait, don't they have a VERY expensive nuclear arms program, and 15 billion rats running through the streets of Mumbi?

chippy1
chippy1

Again, aside from the 800 support centers-"I am Bob, I am Judy how may we help you?"- tell me why we even need this country? 

yankyfan41
yankyfan41

world space agencies should come together and as such could achieve so much more...

Talendria
Talendria

I think it's great that India dares to dream big, and science is an obvious growth vector for the future.  However, they need to start regulating antibiotics before they kill all of us with drug-resistant bacteria.

zza371creek
zza371creek

I don't think many people in India really care about the cost of it.  But i think this is more of a political thing vs a real science effort.  The timeline they gave to develop this is very small and India does not have the advanced rockets yet like china to put anything big in space.

Also the task is not a easy one. Out of all the missions to mars only a handful have worked out. 

But it does seem kind of strange to want to go to mars to do nothing while your power grid system failed for half of the country?

If you look at history the space programs have been used as a way to take political pressure off of other issues.  The United States did it during the 60s and all of the massive problems it had at the time seemed all better when we landed on the moon. It tends to give a country pride to do such a great thing. And makes people forget about a lot of problems at least for a short time. The USSR did the same thing with it's space program.

This is always a huge political gamble. If they do lunch this and it fails that was 80 million dollars up in smoke.  And people will wonder why did we spend that money doing that and not fixing other things.

Space will not really become useful to people for a while or until you have a great economic reason to put people in space.  If we found a lot of oil on the moon in the future so many people and countries would be in space it would not even be funny.

SourShar
SourShar

It is so discouraging to see that everything India or Indians do that can be remotely (60-80 Millions  are nothing when you see comparatively) ambitious, is seen through the prism of poverty in India, and what we haven't achieved yet.

just think about that earlier exploration for new routes for India and china would have met with same criticism, yet Europe prospered after new route for business (and of course due to Imperialism).

Ours is a huge country with innumerable problems, one department does a good work another wastes, if one is doing fine then we should encourage it, rather writing disapprovingly towards it.

Sambit Roychowdhury
Sambit Roychowdhury

"Critics in India immediately reacted to yesterday’s news...": my job is in science, and we have to substantiate all statements we make in our publications with proper references. I accept that it is tough to be so rigorous while publishing in the print media, but does that mean one can make statements not based on facts? Even in the TIME magazine? Please correct me if I am wrong, but I have come across no such criticism in the Indian print media, and the line of argument pursued in this article is emanating from Western news sources. I would be grateful if the author of this article can kindly point me to the statements by the said Indian critics she has referred to.

Maaq
Maaq

Not a very good idea, after so much success on planet earth India wants to turn Mars into a Hunger Capital of universe?.

Sambit Roychowdhury
Sambit Roychowdhury

"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."

My job is in science, where we have to substantiate all statements we make in our publications with proper references. But it seems that one can make up statements in the print media without bothering to base them on reality. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I haven't come across any such criticism from the print media in India,  but have seen such statements from critics abroad.

I would be grateful if the author of this article can kindly point me to the statements of the "critics in India" she has mentioned.

Vivek Verma
Vivek Verma

What a stupid, illogical , irrelevant article, authors seems to be harbouring typical western cynical view on Science mastered by developing third world country. Nobody in India is complaining about this so called Mars mission, Science and ground Indian realities cannot be measured by the same variables, yes its true that India had systemic problem within its system and lot more need to be done at the grass root level. But author is forgetting the fact that India is young country (65 years) with deep ambition, in 65 years after Independence India had mastered appreciable levels of Space science, now progressing it to the next level, Mars is now the obvious possibility. This mission has nothing to do with politics , Science is universal premise for entire human race, though ISRO mission Mars will generate fraction of data compared to NASA Curiosity, but that fraction will be helpful in validating the facts about Martian environment.       

Sohil Dev Singh
Sohil Dev Singh

All Manmohan Singh did was read script written by some one else, had he written the speech himself he would have delivered itcharged with energy, emotions and enthusiasm.This should not be difficult for P.M esp if such a speech is to be given once a year. 1 year is more than enough to prepare a good speech. and not just read a paper written by some one else in front of whole world

Rightly called as Sonia Gandhi's poodle and underachiecer

Sohil Dev Singh
Sohil Dev Singh

On Independence Day 1). PM promises to reduce corruption and ensure transparency in governance.2).P.M said India will soon come out of crisis.

MMS CANNOTspeak truth even for ONCE in an year on the Independence day.Manmohan SIngh is the WORST P.M ever, a SHAME for the country and an INSULT to the constitution of India.Manmohan should stop being pet dog of an Italian waitress, and protect the DIGNITY AND HONOUR of constitutional post of P.M and the constitutional duties . If he can't he should resign, no more MOCKERY AND INSULT of Indian constitution By an Italian Waitress

Sohil Dev Singh
Sohil Dev Singh

We Have Got The Worst Prime Minister In The History and the entire universe

davidgoldmandg
davidgoldmandg

The whities cant stand uppity brownies aiming for mars... old dying nations are just insanely jealous of up and coming ones.

Lets face it, there are plenty of other stuff the US too could spend its mars rover money on - example the homeless, the unemployed, the foreclosed...

Having other expenses is no excuse for nations to not spend on its dreams.

davidgoldmandg
davidgoldmandg

The whities can stand uppity brownies aiming for mars...

Lets face it, there are plenty of other stuff the US could spend its mars rover money on too - ex the homeless, the unemployed, the foreclosed...

Having other expenses is no excuse for nations to not spend on its dreams.

manofsan
manofsan

The real problem with this sudden new mission to Mars is that it's being pushed by the Prime Minister's Office more than by ISRO, for less than noble reasons.

India's ruling Congress party is dependent upon various coalition partners to survive, and has awarded these partners plum ministries in exchange for their support in parliament. One partner, the DMK party, used its control over the telecom ministry to carry out a lucrative scam that would have cheated the national treasury out of billions of dollars, by awarding satellite bandwidth at a pittance. When the scandal came to light, rather than pursuing prosecution of its vital coalition partner, the govt decided to protect them by creating a scapegoat. Dr Madhavan Nair, who was ISRO chief at the time of the inking of these deals, was turned into a fall guy and conveniently branded the main culprit, being blacklisted from future govt jobs despite strong protests and even resignations by senior colleagues. The respected Nair was most famous as a driving force behind India's successful Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon, which mapped much of its surface and discovered water there.

The destruction of Nair's career has had a powerful demoralizing effect on ISRO's scientific establishment, given the widespread knowledge that he had been turned into a sacrificial lamb so that corrupt ruling politicians could protect their own.

In the wake of this sharp blow to ISRO's morale, the PMO has suddenly decided to promote a new mission to Mars, as a sop to ISRO's beleaguered scientists. There is much more scientific benefit to India in prioritizing the Moon over Mars, but Nair's name is strongly associated with the previous Chandrayaan-1 success, and the govt is eager to put him and the Moon behind them.

India doesn't have the capability to accomplish anything meaningful with a mission to Mars, as it doesn't have the payload lift capacity to send anything useful there. Originally proposed as a meager 25-kg payload, technical limitations have forced the Mars payload weight to be further dropped down to a ridiculous 10 kg. With the launch window deadline for Mars coming up fast in 2013 due to planetary alignments, there likely won't be enough time to fully develop the Mars probe before then.

But such practical considerations are of no concern to India's corrupt ruling politicians, for whom even the heavens are not out of bounds to their political stuntsmanship.

Zing Om
Zing Om

Typical "i want to show im great too" mentality!!! First feed your starving masses THEN think Mars...

tma_sierrahills
tma_sierrahills

"The Mars spacecraft is expected to launch in November 2013, a decision based on the planets’ positions at that time."

In related news, violent Islamic fundamentalists have announced a plan to launch a bomb to hit the surface of Mars by the end of 2013.

funnyboy911
funnyboy911

Indian hindooo are idiot. Bunch of tree climbing idiot that only good for wiping their butt with their hands and eat food with it later.

Prithvi Shiv
Prithvi Shiv

Yes we have huge issues that need to be addressed, but that doesn't mean we ignore scientific progress. Studying the universe and understanding it is never unnecessary, what is not needed is bickering over why such things are needed. Humanity would be nowhere, if every single scientific development in human history was disputed on this basis.

gooner06
gooner06

@chippy1 you need it as 30% doctors are Indians ..your entire IT INDUSTRY is handled by Indians....india invests billions in American firms..so pls bro get your facts right..go and research ..this is not Vietnam..this is INDIA

NextPrez
NextPrez

I think you're absolutely wrong in criticizing the Indian PM. India has lot of problems but it is in fact because the congress led government that the country is still together otherwise it can split like the USSR. If you live outside the country then I can say good riddance and if you are lining in India then please get up from your lazy ass and do something positive for the country.

chippy1
chippy1

We'll have the same thing if Rummy gets elected.

vstillwell
vstillwell

"The whities"? Have you ever been to the U.S.? We're pretty brown, chief. 

chippy1
chippy1

And India is sending a small contigent, only 20 million, of astros later on.

Gary
Gary

what has India's space program got to do with Islamic fundamentalists ? get your countries and religions right..

and btw, you should tell those fundamentalists, their 72 virgins live on Mars.. that ll do the trick..

Prithvi Shiv
Prithvi Shiv

 I am an Indian and I am an atheist you retard.

Gary
Gary

idiotic or not.. no one can be more idiotic than you for sure..

Zing Om
Zing Om

but they need to be tackled in order....America never did this when they had millions starving in their country

SourShar
SourShar

carry nose buds it will suit you and do yourself a favor, have a long bath prolly you are smelling yourself.

davidgoldmandg
davidgoldmandg

Probably lived here longer than you... Just tell me why this isn't an article about how US should be spending the billions that went to Curiosity on the homeless in SF or NY?

Not that I support a mars mission - I feel we should go to a commet or asteroid and bring back a sample, or at least photos...

manofsan
manofsan

Actually, Islamic fundamentalists have made announcements that they would target ISRO because it was a source of pride to Indians - not kidding.

tma_sierrahills
tma_sierrahills

My comment on Islamic fundamentalism had nothing to do with India, except to contrast the admirably peaceful India with a less peaceful part of the world. In fact I only wish U.S.  foreign policy was more like India's and less like the final days of the bloated warring Roman Empire. By the way, like your 72 virgins idea. 

Prithvi Shiv
Prithvi Shiv

 That is not the fault of science, that is the fault of political mismanagement. Science should not be made a victim of endemic corruption and incompetence.  Cutting down on science to tackle starvation is not the answer, cutting down on corruption and mismanagement is.

gooner06
gooner06

@chippy1 why is that you westerners especially americans have this tinge up their ass when some country achieves something great ..booyah bitch....jlaous bitches talk about poverty and hunger....as they cannot undermine our scientific achievements as we have always been successful

chippy1
chippy1

What do you feed 563,490,000 Indians when you only have 300 pounds of wheat?

Leftovers.

What's the difference between an Indian toddler and a regulation NFL football?

A football has to weigh at least fourteen ounces.

What's the literal translation of the Hindi phrase for "take a shit"?

"Nothing to do." What do you feed 563,490,000 Indians when you only have 300 pounds of wheat?

Leftovers.

What's the difference between an Indian toddler and a regulation NFL football?

A football has to weigh at least fourteen ounces.

What's the literal translation of the Hindi phrase for "take a shit"?

"Nothing to do." What do you feed 563,490,000 Indians when you only have 300 pounds of wheat?

Leftovers.

What's the difference between an Indian toddler and a regulation NFL football?

A football has to weigh at least fourteen ounces.

What's the literal translation of the Hindi phrase for "take a dump"?

"Nothing to do."

chippy1
chippy1

What do you feed 563,490,000 Indians when you only have 300 pounds of wheat?Leftovers.What's the difference between an Indian toddler and a regulation NFL football?A football has to weigh at least fourteen ounces.What's the literal translation of the Hindi phrase for "take a shit"?"Nothing to do."

ThePatriotic
ThePatriotic

It is not new.... "The more India grows,the more India attains super-stardom,Pakistan's resentments grow with it.And it is relevant so long as it attaches itself to India as a parasite.The moment it leaves India behind,no one cares about Pakistan.Is there a single thing that Pakistan produces that we are in awe of? No there's nothing! Is there something Pakistan has that induces jealousy in us? Nothing! It really is a failed state and we only look to it because its a problem. It just wants our attention."...if you want to see the whole video...here is the link...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... ....However, it is just a matter of time...let Mr. Narendra Modi be the PM in 2014 election...mark my words...India will not restrain herself to attack Pakistan....