Ground control to Mangalyaan

Today November 5, 2013 is a date to mark in your calender: India launches its first ever mission to the Red Planet. We join the exclusive list of only 5 other countries (USA, Russia, China,  Japan and the EU) to attempt this inter-planetary feat. Whatever your conflicts about  social development versus scientific advancement, you cannot deny that this an historic event.

In 1996, 3 boys and 4 girls from the Ida Scudder School Grade 11 class participated in a national school competition in Lucknow called Quanta ’96 (the Indian version of the international competition of the same name). It was a week long battle of wits, brains and creativity, which I am still proud to say our little school from Vellore absolutely killed, walking away with the overall trophy. One of the events we didn’t win was the debate: the topic was ‘space exploration should not be pursued by a developing nation like India’ (that’s not the exact wording but it went something like that).

So this debate is not new to me. I recently read a good article in the Hindu on this very issue. The author asks whether in a country where 50% of households defecate in the open, a 450 crore rupee space mission is justified- at US$73 million this is cheap by  space exploration standards.



The article quotes Jean Dreze who famously said, “I don’t understand the importance of India sending a space mission to Mars when half of its children are undernourished and half of all Indian families have no access to sanitation.” But Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Bangalore, says “the Mars mission is a historical necessity, since after having helped find water on the moon, looking for signatures of life on Mars is a natural progression.” It’s not often I would disagree with Jean Dreze but on this occasion I do. The reason 50% of households defecate in the open is not because money for sanitation has been diverted to fund space exploration – it’s because of decades of poorly designed and badly executed public policies that have failed to protect the poor and improve human social capital. The economy has been allowed to rocket to the moon but only a microscopic fraction of it has been plunged back in to social welfare. Parts of India are shockingly rich and their neighbours live at the other end of the economic spectrum. As Dreze and Sen say, “India has become islands of California in a sea of Sub-Saharan Africa” (An Uncertain Glory, 2013)

But the line from the Hindu article that I absolutely loves is: “… as some 600 million people sit under the sky for their ablutions they could possibly catch a glimpse of India’s smaller rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, begin what would be India’s long march of sending a robot some 400 million kilometres away to study Mars in what is being considered the cheapest interplanetary mission ever.”

The Indian Aeronautics Industry together with ISRO are building top of the line helicopters and fighter aircraft (like the Mirage’s capabilities) at a quarter of the cost it takes the Americans and French.  All with indigenous technology too. It’s something to be proud of that despite living in a land where 600 million defecate outside there are people who are building world class technologies and their brains didn’t get drained to American firms or NASA; instead they accepted crappy pay and the same crappy roads and erratic electricity supply, and 1970s built government accommodation – just like the rest of us – to do something for the nation. If they were doing it all for themselves, they’d be in the US by now living the good life. Instead they chose to stay and achieve what should be the impossible in a country like India. Most will say that this affirms the contradiction that is India – sending orbiters to Mars when only half of Indian households (55% as per 2001 census) use electricity as their primary source of lighting (and even that’s not a continuous supply). I don’t like to take refuge in the contradiction argument because I feel it’s a cop out, an easy excuse. It’s not a contradiction, it’s a disgrace.

The Mission to Mars proves that we have the potential to do great things, just think of how much greater we could be if decades of public policy and economic prosperity had been invested in building human and social capital.  If India was to sell its indigenously made military equipment and aircraft (which it won’t) and the proceeds of those sales were earmarked both for development and for research and technology then there would be no argument from those in Dreze’s camp. But it’s also true that India is not short of money for development – we are lacking in will. And don’t get me started on the amount of black money in the Swiss bank accounts of Indian businessmen and politicians.

In 40 years ISRO has spent less than half of what NASA spends in an entire year and space exploration accounts for just 0.08% of GDP. In 2005 we spent just Rs.50 per person on space exploration (so don’t cry over your taxes). If those statistics haven’t made you spill your sambar, you’d be shocked to know that India spent just 3.9% of GDP on  health – the lowest of all the BRIC countries. Brazil and South Africa spend around 9% of GDP on health and the former has only about 190 million people. People of India – we should be using our breath to shout about this atrocity and leaving the good people at ISRO alone, they are the few who’ve given us something to be proud about in recent years.

ISRO has achieved an incredible amount with the little they’ve been give, one being the 6 or so satellites without which thousands would have died in Cyclone Phaillin – instead only 44 lives were lost in Odisha in comparison with 10,000 people who died in the supercyclone of 1999 and 300,000 in the Sunderbans and Bangladesh in 1970. “The crucial difference now is that India today had as many as half-a-dozen satellites, all made by ISRO, keeping a constant vigil on the cyclone as it roared over the Bay of Bengal, while the string of Doppler Radars that line the coast along the Bay of Bengal also helped. None of this cutting-edge capability would have been possible had the government heeded the advice of the critics who consider India’s investment in space a waste of resources. According to ISRO, for every rupee spent the agency has given back more than two in return. At the same time, how do you put a price on the over 10,000 lives saved in Odisha during Phailin.” (Pallav Bhaga in The Hindu article quoted above)

If you were in any doubt over the fantastic every day inventions to come out of NASA’s space program be so no more; they include: the ear thermometer, memory foam, shoe insoles, cordless tools, water filters, adjustable smoke detectors, ceramic braces, scratch resistant lenses, long distance telecommunications and something called safety grooves used on roads and runways to increase friction. And of course, NASA did take Tang in to space.  The medical inventions alone are tremendous from artificial limbs to ventricular assist devices.

At 14:30hrs IST today, November 5th 2013 you can watch Mangalyaan (translation: mars craft) and the five instruments on board the orbiter,  begin its 300 day journey to the orbit of Mars. No country except for the EU was successful in its first attempt at reaching Mars. Lets hope that Mangalyaan makes it. The event is streaming live on or on DD if you are in India.

I still remember a quote by the boy who won the debate at Quanta ’96 arguing for space exploration. He quoted Robert Browning, : “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp…or else what’s a heaven for?”

As they say in Latin: ad astra… to the stars!


Mars picture from:wikipedia

P.S: A reader (see comments below) has told me about a picture taken by the great Henri Cartier Bresson ( a photographer I studied a lot about in Goldsmiths) and his 1966 picture of a rocket head being transported by bicycle to the Thumba testing facility in Kerala. Here is the picture and an article that appeared in Business Line about the picture by Ranabir Ray Choudary

By Henri Cartier Bresson, from

By Henri Cartier Bresson, from

About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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17 Responses to Ground control to Mangalyaan

  1. 4th grade is learning about Mangalyaan – they were amazed that it’ll take 300 days to reach the orbit of Mars! We’ll be looking out for your blog in September this year 🙂

    • Many wins for Mangalyaan already like: a few laps around the earth before a long engine burn successfully propelled in to interplanetary space; the cyrogenic GSLV’s successful launch means we can have a bigger payload for the next orbiter. Lots of exciting things to come for sure!

  2. alka ganesh says:

    Our early leaders (Nehru), made equally bold decisions like funding the Indian atomic research labs BRAC, just after independence. Today we can access isotopes for medical purposes at a fraction of the cost that countries in SE Asia pay to get theirs from UK and other countries. A country’s development must be multi-pronged, and the adage “dont put all your eggs in one basket” is one to follow.

  3. Saravanan says:

    Atleast Mars Satellite enhances countries scientific capabilities. What to do you say about Mr. Narendra Modi’s project of building a Statue taller than world’s tallest buildings at the cost of Rupees 2083 Crores. He is projected as the Prime Minister candidate for one of the main parties. If the stars align badly he might become the next Prime Minister of India.

    • gosh i hadn’t heard that one… FRom shakespeare’s julius cesar i quote: it is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings – by which he means that we invite the trouble on ourselves. If we the people elect people with these flawed ideas then we cannot blame our fate, we have to blame ourselves, our decision.s. THanks for reading

    • Rajesh says:

      It will be clever if the tall structure is also a launch pad for space missions.

    • Rajesh says:

      It will be clever if the tall structure is also designed as a launch pad for space missions.

  4. Rajamanickam says:

    Mangalyan go to mar successfully launched to mars.

  5. Rajesh says:

    The Jean Drezes of the world need to be reminded that millions of Indians were defecating in the open during the 800+ years of Islamic occupation and the 200+ years of British occupation after that. As one of the richest civilizations reduced to complete penury in the past 1000 years, yes, yes, we are deeply ashamed that the last 60+ years haven’t been enough to conceal our biodegradable wastes in sheds and pipes.

  6. pareshkale says:

    Articulate writing !

  7. mh says:

    You have echoed the discerning indians dilemma. I think there is enough intellectual and monetary capital in our country to invest in sanitation and satellites. Reducing it to a yes or no debate is over simplification and intolerance for nuance.

    I too noted the Hindu quote. I think that it came from NDTV science correspondent Pallav Bagla?

    Todays Hindu states we spend 10000crore on Diwali crackers.. So much for 450 crores.

    You may like to share Henry Cartier Bresson’s photographs of our first sounding rockets at VSSC Tumba transported from the makeshift lab in a church to the launch site- on a cycle..

    I am reminded of that picture that said it all..

  8. StuPC says:

    It’s a tricky dilemma, isn’t it? I think space travel, exploration and scientific endeavour are all incredibly valuable – they’re part of what make us human – but even I sometimes struggle to justify the expense when people are starving and dying from easily preventable causes here on Earth.
    But then I remember: there’s *far* more money being wasted elsewhere that serves no justifiable purpose whatsoever.
    Keeping our dreams of a better future alive seems a very wise and relatively small expenditure by comparison.

    • well said. This debate is all over our Indian TV screens with all sorts of pundits weighing in. I’m very happy that the ex-director of ISRO gave all the anti-space exploration campers a good bashing. ONe of the things he pointed is that space exploration of the 1970s is only now having its impact on society – it’s not an immediate effect, this is a long term game

  9. Well, the stars and planets will keep luring the human to reach out to them always. Best wishes to Mangalyaan.

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