In a flawless first, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is now spinning around our red neighbor. That the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is the the world’s first space agency to get its Mars mission right in the first attempt is remarkable no matter how you look at it. However, the ISRO scientists will be the first ones not to exult over it too much because space missions are notoriously unreliable given the sheer odds against them. If only 21 out of 51 Mars missions had succeeded before this one, it is not because of any flagrant incompetence by other space agencies but the intrinsic nature of the enormous variables involved in them.
I had pointed out a few days ago how cool it would be—I did indeed mean cool—if two missions from Earth would successfully reach Mars in a span of two days or so. That cool did indeed happen on Wednesday as ISRO scientists tracked MOM and waited for a final confirmation from MOM that it had safely inserted itself into a Martian orbit. At $74 million total, the Indian mission is the cheapest that has ever been. Some homes in California and Florida cost much more than that. Forget homes in America, India’s own Mukesh Ambani could personally fund ten or such missions by staying in a smaller home than his reputedly billion dollar tower in Mumbai. When you consider that NASA spent $671 million on its Maven mission, you get the scale of how much cheaper the Indian endeavor has been. Of course, at some level space missions must not be judged by how much we spend on them but how well we do them. I have been a consistent cheerleader to NASA’s missions over the decades.
For a country like India, which has been for the past two decades or so tapping its real economic and technological potential, an unqualified success such as MOM can have an extraordinarily inspirational effect. It can also force the country’s young to learn to recognize real accomplishment when they see one and not get googli-eyed in the embarrassing starstruckness* over trivialities served up by the worlds of cricket and movies. MOM is a triumph of the scientist forever wary of shortcuts. It was a mission which had to be painfully tightly run given its meager resources and burdensome expectations. No one knows better than ISRO scientists that every mission is unique in its challenges even if much of what it takes in terms of building spacecraft, launching it and setting it on course may feel like cookie cutter. There are always things that can go wrong when you are talking journeys spanning hundreds of millions of kilometers and the time lag they entail.
The success of MOM places extra pressure on ISRO to deliver high technology on the cheap but it would be a great disservice to the scientific community if its frugal pricing is one of the predominant takeaways from the mission. It is tremendous that they did it so efficiently by stretching every conceivable resource but do not force them into that corner permanently. On its part, ISRO will have to get out of that mindset that it must forever do things by constantly looking at its budget. If there is any agency that eminently deserves budgetary flexibility and license, it is ISRO.
I have a few observations to make about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech after the successful Martian entry. In keeping with the scale of the mission though, I will spare you such political inconsequentialities.