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.
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.