Okay, we get it — India's Mars Orbiter Mission was spectacularly cheap, costing less than the entire budget of the Hollywood movie Gravity. But is this really what we —and India — should be focusing on?
No doubt, this is a stunning achievement for India. Commentators from around the world are lauding India's space program for not just its scientific accomplishments, but also for how cheaply they were able to pull it off. The mission has been budgeted at 4.5 billion rupees, which is about USD$74 million. By Western standards, that's absurdly cheap. It cost one-ninth of NASA's $671 million Maven mission, which arrived at Mars earlier this week.
"Our program stands out as the most cost-effective," noted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi back in June. "There is this story of our Mars mission costing less than the Hollywood movie Gravity... Our scientists have shown the world a new paradigm of engineering and the power of imagination."
Clearly, India is doing something right, and they deserve to be commended; MOM did cost less than any previous mission to Mars, and Isro clearly learnt from the failures of the past. But as noted by the Business Standard, the mission's success is being sold the wrong way and far too much is being made of the mission being performed on a shoestring. There are some other important factors to consider:
First, accounting standards are not the same across agencies such as Isro and, say, the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration. If the same standards were applied, the Mars orbiter would have cost much more than the stated Rs 450 crore, since the salaries of dedicated personnel, and other such costs, would have been attributed to the mission.
Which is absolutely true. And even if salaries were included, they simply wouldn't compare to those of other space agencies. Also,
the "cheapness" was forced upon Isro because of earlier failures. The smaller, older Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) had to be deployed, rather than the more powerful Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), because Isro had failed to stabilise the GSLV's cryogenic technology in time to launch into a favourable Earth-Mars window. The payload for the Mars orbiter had to be considerably reduced as a result. The trajectory also became more complicated because the PSLV lacks the power to take a more direct route. A GSLV-based Mars mission would have cost more. But it could have carried a much bigger payload, and it could have reached Mars faster. This is significant, given Isro's desire to break into the big league in terms of satellite launches. The commercial market is interested in big satellites with larger payloads. The GSLV can put 2,500-kg satellites into the geosynchronous orbit. The commercial market is often interested in above 3,000-kg ones. So Isro needs to scale up these capabilities. Selling the mission as "cheap" only draws attention to the things that Isro has not yet done. [emphasis added]
This is just the beginning; the mission — and India's space program — has only just begun. Isro must and will scale up. Importantly, this mission will inspire the development of space technologies and the rise of the commercial satellite market, while enhancing India's stature as space-faring nation. What's more, young Indians will most assuredly be motivated to work in these sectors. As noted by the Business Standard, "That pay-off is long-term, and it cannot be easily quantified. But it is huge."