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Chandrayaan-I: Money Down the Drain or Time to Celebrate?

A few hours ago, ISRO put “Chandrayaan-I”  into transfer orbit around the earth, heralding its “Mission to Moon”.

This is a proud moment for the team at ISRO working tirelessly for the last several months, sometimes right through the night.

It is also a proud moment for India’s indigenous space research programme and more broadly, India’s indigenous R&D efforts – the seeds of which were planted barely a few decades ago.

But questions are being asked…and doubts are being raised.

“Was this the best use of the country’s limited resources?”, “What will this mission really achieve?”, “Will it have any impact on the problems that we are facing today e.g. poverty, hunger, malnutrition?”

At a fundamental level, such questions assume that this is a zero-sum game and there is a constraint on funds for developmental projects. I do not agree with that…India’s main developmental challenge is inefficient (I would even go to the extreme of saying extremely inefficient) utilisation of resources rather than lack of funds.

Having said that, the answer to these questions is neither simple nor straightforward…

While the launch will cost money (although relatively speaking it will be a small amount: Rs 386 cr./~$80m), the benefits are more difficult to compute…How do you put a value on India’s credibility and prowess in R&D research? How do you put a value on the indirect gains that will accrue (in terms of geo-politics)?

How can you quantify the benefits and the advantages of being at the vanguard of space research and exploration? and how can you over-emphasize the importance of R&D and activities targeted at the next decade?

Many would remember that the same – and similar – questions were asked of ISRO’s focus on remote sensing satellites in the past two decades… The question – and the “answer” – was eloquently articulated in this article in the New Scientist:

But why is India, a country that still has so many development problems on the ground, aiming for the heavens? To Indian scientists, the question is not only patronizing of their scientific aspirations, it betrays an ignorance of the Indian space program’s greater purpose and successes against the odds….

Take, for example, India’s six remote-sensing satellites — the largest such constellation in the world. These monitor the country’s land and coastal waters so that scientists can advise rural communities on the location of aquifers and where to find watercourses, suggest to fishermen when to set sail for the best catch, and warn coastal communities of imminent storms. India’s seven communication satellites, the biggest civilian system in the Asia-Pacific region, now reach some of the remotest corners of the country, providing television coverage to 90% of the population. The system is also being used to extend remote health-care services and education to the rural poor.

In addition…

The “super-cyclone” that hit India’s eastern coast on Oct 29, 1999, could have killed thousands but for an INSAT satellite that tracked its course every half hour identifying areas that needed to be evacuated.

What does ISRO have to say about the benefits of the Mission to Moon? In their own words:

The Study Report of the Task Team was discussed in April 2003 by a peer group of about 100 eminent Indian scientists…After detailed discussions, it was unanimously recommended that India should undertake the Mission to Moon, particularly in view of the renowned international interest on moon with several exciting missions planned for the new millennium.

In addition, such a mission will provide the needed thrust to basic science and engineering research in the country including new challenges to ISRO to go beyond the geostationary orbit.

Further, such a project will also help bringing in young talents to the arena of fundamental research. The Academia, in particular, the university scientists would also find participation in such a project intellectually rewarding.

Needless to say, “If you want to do space exploration, the Moon is where you have to start.”

Asked about the relevance of the Mission to Moon for a “poor nation” like India, G Madhavan Nair had this to say in a recent interview:

How do you handle criticism from a section of the people that a poor nation like India shouldn’t be wasting money on projects like Chandrayaan?

We have faced this question in the early phase of the programme. We are convinced that we are doing more service to the society than the money spent on the programme. But to doubly assure ourselves, we asked a school of economics in Chennai a couple of years back to make an assessment. The report they submitted was really mind-boggling. They found that what we have given back to the society in terms of products and services is something like one and half times more than the cumulative investment made on the entire space programme. Leave alone the infrastructure, the technology, the human resources and the various laboratories we have developed, if we add all that it is certainly more than five times spent on the programme.

Plus there are clear commercial gains…ISRO already has a subsidiary called Antrix (from “Antariksha” = space) which provides services for commercial launch of satellites and payloads into orbit. These services leverage ISRO’s “frugal engineering” to provide a compelling cost advantage in the market for satellite launch services. Last year’s Antrix’s turnover was shy of $240m on which it made a profit of ~ $35m. Chandrayaan itself is carrying 6 payloads for other agencies which would explore the lunar surface over the next two years.

A successful launch will help further commercialisation of these services and add to our credibility. It will increase our launch and space mission capabilities and help us play a prominent role in international negotiations and strategic discussions on space related matters. It would also help ISRO recruit talented engineers and scientists.

There may also be spin-off benefits in related areas of defence research (e.g in development of ICBM capabilities). Besides the cost of the Mission (of ~$80m) is only a fraction of ISRO’s annual budget, is spread over mutliple years and some of the investment is in facilities that will be re-used for other services and launches (e.g. the Indian Deep Space Network at Byalalu, near Bangalore, established at a cost of $20m – which will also serve future satellites). And all this is done within an annual budget that is less than a tenth of NASA’s (according to this report, in 2006, ISRO’s annual budget was less than 3% of NASA!).

All in all, the Mission to Moon gives great bang-for-the buck.

Yes, it would not directly put food in hungry mouths…yes, it would not directly put any money in the pockets of the impoverished…but the gains that accrue have a huge geo-strategic significance and will help India’s ascendancy on the world stage – not to mention providing a booster shot to indigenous R&D efforts.

We would do well to cheer it.

From the Rig Veda:

“O Moon! We should be able to know you through our intellect. You enlighten us through the right path.” Today, Chandrayaan has set out on this right path.

त्वम सोम पर चिकितॊ मनीषा, त्वम रजिष्ठमनु नॆषि पन्थाम ॥

Tvam Soma para chikito manisha. Tvam rajishtamanu neshi panthaam.  Rig Veda (Hymn 91)

For the more curious amongst you, here is the link to the home page of the Mission, link to FAQs and an informative booklet [~700k pdf file]. There is even a YouTube video on the Mission (I don’t think it is by ISRO though)!

To close, here is an uplifting extract from Newsweek on how India’s vision might just show the way for mankind’s next giant leap:

India’s investment in Earth observation satellites over the years comes to only about $500 million per satellite, about a tenth of the cost of its Western counterparts. After introducing a satellite service to locate potential fish zones and broadcasting the sites over All India Radio, ISRO helped coastal fishermen double the size of their catch. For the government’s Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, begun in 1986, satellites have improved the success rate of government well-drilling projects by 50 to 80 percent, saving $100 million to $175 million. Meteorological satellites have improved the government’s ability to predict the all-important Indian monsoon, which can influence India’s gross domestic product by 2 to 5 percent.

Next, ISRO plans to roll out satellite-enabled services to hundreds of millions of farmers in India’s remote villages. In partnership with NGOs and government bodies, it has helped to set up about 400 Village Resource Centers so far. Each provides connections to dozens of villages for Internet-based services such as access to commodities pricing information, agricultural advice from crop experts and land records. ISRO’s remote-sensing data will also help village councils develop watersheds and irrigation projects, establish accurate land records and plan new roads connecting their villages with civilization as cheaply and efficiently as possible. One ISRO partner—the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation—has used satellites to conduct 78,000 training programs for more than 300,000 farmers in 550 villages, teaching them about farming practices like drip-and-sprinkle irrigation, health-care awareness programs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and information about how to access government services. Using satellites to guide reclamation of 2 million hectares of saline and alkaline wastelands is expected to generate income of more than $500 million a year.

…and here is a great account of how far we have come in 45 years:

The launch of a US-made Nike-Apache Sounding Rocket from Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram, on Nov 21, 1963, marked the beginning of India’s space odyssey…

…Recalling the incident, R. Aravamudan, who has been associated with the Indian space programme from the very beginning, says: “There were no buildings yet in the range (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station -TERLS). Our first office was in the bishop’s house and the St. Mary Magdalene church building there.”

“Once the rocket was launched, there was no telemetry or radar tracking, only photography from three stations of the vapour cloud. The orange vapour trail was visible from all over Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. This created great excitement. Since the common public had never seen such a sight before, it also gave rise to some hilarious newspaper reports.”

…”We had to make use of public transport as there were no official vehicles yet and no canteen. So, our day began with a quick breakfast of idli sambar at the Railway Station Canteen, which was the only place where we could get food to our taste.

We would then pack some snacks and lunch from the same canteen and go to the bus stand to catch a mofussil bus to Kazhakkutam. We would get down at the bus stand there and walk about a kilometre or so to the range. The whole trip took about an hour.

“The range (TERLS) was quite large in area and the only means of transport within the range was by bicycle. Those like (A.P.J. Abdul) Kalam, who could not cycle, had to hitch rides with others.”

*Somewhat* Related Post: Of Vimanas and Time Travel

Recommended Reading: G Madhavan Nair’s interview in Outlook.

October 22nd, 2008 Posted by | Featured, Geo-Strategic Issues (incl. Nuclear, Oil, Energy), Technology in India | 20 comments


  1. Amazing Post. Great research and through reporting!

    Comment by Ashish Gupta | October 22, 2008

  2. many thanks for this wonderful and inspiring post

    Comment by vikram | October 22, 2008

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    Comment by Navneet Jadhav | October 22, 2008

  4. Hi Shantanu

    Very well and balanced analysis.

    Poverty is a relative term. I can understand that Education for all must be the priority for any Indian Government. The policy of “reservation based on “caste” is doing more harm to Nation than any good. I wrote an article in my Medical studies in the Collage magazine. I have criticised the Policy of Reservation then (1967) and I do now too.

    Government should provide the facilities for any one to come in to competition. Jobs and promotions must not be caste based.

    So called “Welfare States” do have Homeless people, vagrants, poverty, unemployment. India is not a Welfare state BUT compare to developed nation we have better conditions for a person who wants to earn by honest means. Corruption is one which is rampant from top to bottom.

    Comment by Dr Madhukar Ambekar | October 22, 2008

  5. A country which can write off 16000 crs of farm loans…..the question of affordability is frivolous, thoughtless and archaic !!!!

    Comment by Dnyanesh | October 22, 2008

  6. Shantanuji,

    A proud day for India that we have achieved such an important landmark at such a short span and with a small budget in comparison with other space exploring nations.
    Let us celebrate the whizkids who have made it possible-ISRO scientists.

    Comment by Rohit Pattnaik | October 22, 2008

  7. @Shatanu, really great post!
    Over the net one would find many articles supporting/opposing Chandrayaan, but this post is far ahead in terms of facts and the way they are put up.


    Btw do you (or any1) have any information regarding Russia’s involvement in this project? I understand ISRO (also, DRDO) and Russians have a good collaboration…

    Comment by Hemant | October 22, 2008

  8. Congratulation! India.

    Comment by Indian | October 22, 2008

  9. # “While the launch will cost money (although relatively speaking it will be a small amount: Rs 386 cr./~$80m), the benefits are more difficult to compute…”

    1. Bofors deal made Rajiv fake Gandhi earn 2.5 billion Swiss Franks, deposited in Swiss Banks (reported in Swiss magazine published in 1991, along with other world mafias). All knows to whom this money now belongs.

    Italian Fugitive Quottrochi, Sonia Maino’s friend, earned how many millions of dollars as kickbacks? At least, we know 26 million UK pound were given away from British banks by the Union Law Ministry (read UPA govt) recently.

    Lalu’s fooder scam was about 1000 Crores. And list goes on hundreds of thousands of crores of Rupees scams all across the nation.

    Why bother them, they deserve to loot. We shall do the same tommorrow, preparing to become similar types of leaders.

    2. But, we must question, dig day and night, every penny given to idiots called scientific community. They are really idiots, as they can’t loot the nation and many remain bachellors killing themselves working inside laboratoies whole life. Still, they don’t get a front cover news, unlike porno factory called film industry’s any xyz.

    3. The problem in Bharat is that any xyz dogs cats rats becomes experts in every domains and pretend they are making expert comments. I say, you scoundrals stay where you deserve, and don’t pretend to be making expert comments. If you can’t appreciate commendable works, its alright. But don’t make noise.

    4. Tax money utilised for the space programme, also belongs to me and millions of scientific community people and lovers. Why do you use scientific community peoples tax money for Haj subsidy, christian haj subsidy, political leaders 5 star life, and luxurious livings of many others.

    5. What knowledge do you have about benefits and costs of space programme of India? How many of you know, how much it costs to develop a communication sattellite and then putting it in geostationary orbits? To launh one communcation sattellite, it costs between 300 to 600 million US dollars, plus insurance. Till recently, India used to launch comm sat from French Guiana with French-Europen Ariane Rockets.

    Read the India’s space history and its contributions to national development (from defence to agriculture, forestry, resource management, water, national planning, education, communication, TV broadcasting, weather forcasting, cyclone warning, rescue operations, and so on). India is the only country in the world where Space Programme originated in civil sector (unlike US, Russia, Europe, China, where space program developed in military-defence sector) and the main motto, Space for National Development.

    6. In 1970s-80s, Western countries used to joke about India’s space program saying a country where millions have no food to eat but spent millions of dollars for sending toys in the space. Same west later admired India, as it is the only country heavily benefited from space in national development, and utilises India’s remote sensing data. US is the major buyer of Indian Remote Sensing data. Indian rockets now launches foreign satellites, generates revenues for ISRO. Over 80% of India is covered by TV due to sattelite tech. Lists goes on.

    We must realise space techs are dual-use technologies. Same space rockets PSLV, GSLV can be transformed into Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, IRBM, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, ICBM.

    7. Moon mission is a major milestone in India’s space program, for exploring outer space and contributing to scientific development and progress.

    Comment by Bharat | October 22, 2008

  10. Gr8 post Shantanu! Conrgratulations to ISRO & India on this gr8 achievement!

    Comment by Sootradhaar | October 23, 2008

  11. *** COMMENT COMBINED ***

    Thanks all…for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts…

    I had put in a lot of effort into this post – mainly to understand first-hand the issues involved in the social development vs. R&D debate.

    I am glad that it came out well…


    Below are comments on this post over at DesiCritics:

    #1 K. M.

    You ask – Is the Chandrayan mission a waste of money? The more important question is “Whose money?” Clearly, the money involved is taxpayer money. And, taxpayers can legitimately disagree about whether the mission is beneficial. In fact as you yourself admit, such questions cannot have clear answers. Therefore, the mission is unjust to those who do not believe it to be beneficial. The government has no business pursuing scientific research.

    #2 kaffir
    Therefore, the mission is unjust to those who do not believe it to be beneficial.

    By your logic, the mission is just to those who believe it to be beneficial. Correct? :)

    #3 kerty

    Why do people pay taxes? Why not leave all the money with tax payers and let them spend it as they see fit and let the economy evolve out of such economic dynamics?

    Unfortunately, many sectors can not rely on private commercial transactions. So tax payers have to pool their resources and create capital markets that can allow large scale projects to be undertaken. Unfortunately, capital markets run on profit motive. Lack of instant profit gratification can not help corpocracy or private sector to tackle fields of r&d and infra-structure that are key for economic development. So tax-payers have to pool money and assign such roles to government – roles that neither individual, private sector is capable of undertaking. Removing poverty is a function of economy – and that role is ideal for private sector – government need not dabble in it when empowerment of private sector can tackle it. R&D and economic infra-structure is a proper role of government and good use of tax money. Let whining leftists whine – I do not think tax payers would trust them with any dime.


    Courtesy Varnam:

    As the debate continues on if it is prudent to spend money on space missions while there are other needs, it is worth reading how NASA helped invent Silicon Valley.

    But if you’d visited the region in 1930, all you’d have seen was a two-lane highway cutting through acres and acres of nothing but farmland and tiny hamlets, and not even a hint of what would someday become arguably the most important commercial technology center in the world.

    In December of that year, however, word came that the U.S. Navy was going to open an air station in Sunnyvale, Calif., one that would handle gigantic airships and that would need a mammoth hangar.

    The result? The Sunnyvale Naval Air Station, later known as NASA Moffett Field. And today, Moffett is home to NASA’s Ames Research Center, a facility that is at the heart of Silicon Valley, both geographically and figuratively. In 1930 the region didn’t know what was about to arrive, but it soon realized how much change was coming.

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 23, 2008

  12. Watch.

    Narendra Modi Speech on Success of Chandrayaan-1

    Also read.
    Why India needs Narendra Modi?

    Comment by Bharat | October 24, 2008

  13. Nice watching and reading. But I was wondering we too can get that book what he distributed at the end of it.

    Jai Hind!

    Comment by Indian | October 26, 2008

  14. there is always opposition of good things.people will blam or raise finger on everything. but wht is for benifit of masses must be taken. ISRO and other indian lab are doing gr8 work and giveing results better then any other agency in world. but unfortunatly in india we hardly care for scientific development and other reserch result. only few major projects get’s media highlight. our scientics have achived more then any other in world. this chandrayaan is a slap on face of big nations which think india can’t develop technology. we must back our scientist and shd incourage younger ppl to take it as carrier.

    if someone like reading i will advice to read autobigraphy of Sh. APJ ABDUL KALAM– “WINGS OF FIRE” by arun tiwari.it is a must read book who want to know abt indian space program and other isro development.

    Comment by tarun garg | October 26, 2008

  15. Poverty/Illiteracy/Hunger in India is due to corruption and bad governance – a legacy of over 50+ years of Congress-Communist rule.

    For every rupee assigned by the government to help Indian villages, only a fraction (say, 10 paise) trickles in to the end beneficiary.

    Diverting all the money meant for scientific development & progress to the government’s corruption-ridden schemes to “end” poverty/illiteracy/hunger won’t do the trick.

    Eradication of poverty/illiteracy must go hand-in-hand with scientific development & progress.

    Kudos to ISRO and the scientific community for making Chandrayaan happen.

    Comment by Bengal Voice | October 27, 2008

  16. really informative,helped me greatly for symbosiums.
    thank you.

    Comment by ASISH P JOHN | November 12, 2008


    In today’s busy life a voice is coming from everywhere ie ‘THRIFTNESS’.

    I am a man of having a habit of saving small amount of money in small Saving Schemes and due to this my name is entered in Limca Book Of Records in the year of 1997 & 2000. Because of my this habit I have earned few profit & now it is my desire that some other people of society could also be profited. If in our country only 1% of the population on their respective birthday’s Could open one Recurring deposit account with an amount of Rs 50/-in Their nearest post offices for the duration of 60 Months. They should open an another account on their next coming birthday .After the completion of 60 Months they will get a MATURITY VALUE on the 61th month. On the other hand every month government will get a profit of Rs 50 crore For the ECONOMIC DEVOLOPEMENTAL ACTIVITIES in our country I have done this experiment on myself by saving money in small saving Schemes.I want to draw your kind attention of my new IDEA, and if you want to make our country economically powerful then please give this information to other people for economic social welfare, and belive me this type of regular saving practice may utilize to PREVENT POVERTY of our country.

    Comment by P.K. Jain | April 2, 2009

  18. From India launches spacecraft to Mars, a brief excerpt:
    ..K Radhakrishnan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), told the BBC’s India Business Report: “Why India has to be in the space programme is a question that has been asked over the last 50 years. The answer then, now and in the future will be: ‘It is for finding solutions to the problems of man and society.’

    He added: “A great revolution has taken place over these last 50 years in the country by a meagre expenditure that has been put into the space programme.”

    Comment by B Shantanu | November 6, 2013

  19. Frm a BBC report on Mangalyaan: Did you know that The [making of the] Hollywood movie Gravity cost more than our Mars mission – this is a great achievement.” !
    And that..”Since 1960, there have been 51 missions to Mars. less thn half hv succeeded; the odds were loaded against India..”

    THIS is cutting-edge low-cost innovation: “…in real terms, the Mangalyaan has cost India just abt Rs 4/ per person”

    Comment by B Shantanu | September 24, 2014

  20. Here’s Gurcharan Das on Mangalyaan:
    Many argue the money would have been better spent on clean water and toilets in what remains in many places a desperately poor country,and they have a point. But in assuming that spending on space is a hobby of rich countries alone, they fail to realise that nation building entails the memory of heroic achievements such as this one, which will go on to inspire generations of children to pursue careers in pure and applied sciences.The value of this inspiration is incalculable in developing the sort of talent that can disproportionately benefit a nation.

    The investment in the project was less than the $100m budget for the film Gravity, or even a Bollywood blockbuster. How did Indian scientists succeed so economically? It is not simply that people costs are lower, or that homemade technologies are cheaper than imports. It is because project managers focused on a few crucial objectives and executed them brilliantly. This is what impresses international scientists such as Britain’s Professor Andrew Coates, who will be a principal investigator on Europe’s 2018 Mars rover mission.
    No one understands the modernising value of the Mars mission better than Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. In a society beset by middle-class insecurities, science is increasingly neglected in favour of more practical careers in business, law and engineering. This is a valuable chance to revive its popularity. This mission reminded the nation of an earlier generation that had produced outstanding scientists, some of them Nobel Prize winners, who are remembered for world-famous contributions such as the Raman effect, the Saha equation and the Chandrasekhar Limit. As Mangalyaan entered the red planet’s orbit last week, Mr Modi urged every college and school to spend five minutes savouring the moment, just as they would a cricket victory.

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 5, 2014

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