New York Times highlights stark frugality of India’s Mars orbiter
Science and the Media:
Calling India’s first space mission to Mars “historic,” an enthusiastic Times of India update report earlier this month began, “Hurtling towards the Red Planet . . . the Mars Orbiter Mission will not have time to pause and celebrate” its first 100 days of spaceflight. Moreover, there’ll be “no applause from its only true spectators—the mute planets and distant stars.” Back on Earth, though, the New York Times recently applauded what will be, if India’s Mangalyaan succeeds, the venture’s striking cost-effectiveness.
The satellite is to arrive in September. Its mission website specifies the technological and scientific objectives. Nothing there explicitly cites the search for evidence related to life, but the satellite is planned to measure methane for that purpose.
The Hindustan Times, which calls Mangalyaan “a budget player in the global space race,” emphasizes that only 21 of 51 attempted Mars probes have succeeded, with only the US, Europe, and Russia having orbited or landed probes there.
The applauding New York Times article, “From India, proof that a trip to Mars doesn’t have to break the bank,” examines the “budget player” dimension. It points out the nearly order-of-magnitude total-cost comparison between Mangalyaan’s $75 million—well less than what the space-adventure movie Gravity cost Hollywood—and the cost of NASA Mars-orbiting mission MAVEN, launched only a few days later: $671 million.
The Times notes that “jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters.” India’s space budget, the article reports, is 5.5% of NASA’s. India launches non-Indian Earth satellites cheaply for others.
And India’s spaceflight engineering labor costs are low. Though the Times article consistently identifies people who conduct spaceflight for scientists as engineers, it quotes a researcher’s use of the old clichéd inaccuracy: “Rocket scientists in India cost very little.” New spaceflight engineers there make only about $1000 a month, the article says.
Other economies in the Mangalyaan effort have come from building only the flight model, not a qualification model and a flight spare. India also limited expensive ground tests, the Times says. It adds:
Systems like the attitude control, which maintains the orientation of the spacecraft; the gyro, a sensor that measures the satellite’s deviation from its set path; or the star tracker, a sensor that orients the satellite to distant objects in the celestial sphere, are the same across several [of India’s space] missions.
The article takes note of allegations of a national space program’s inherent profligacy in a country with the social challenges of India, but also mentions the usefulness of India’s Earth satellite program and the multiplier effect of the space effort in industry there.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.