How The (Political) Planets Aligned to Get India to Mars
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

How The (Political) Planets Aligned to Get India to Mars


The world rightfully applauded when India’s Mangalyaan spacecraft began orbiting Mars in September 2014. After all, new entries were being logged in the record books: India became the first Asian country to reach Mars, the first country to orbit Mars on its first attempt, and only the fourth country to orbit Mars, with such space heavy-hitters as the United States, the Soviet Union and Europe. But who pays attention to record books any longer when it comes to space anyway?

Everyone. The benefits for India to be seen as a space power range from regional and geostrategic influence vis-à-vis China, to raising the credibility of sophisticated space technology produced by Anthrix, the commercial arm of India’s Space Research Organization, credibility accompanied by potentially substantial economic returns.

Additionally, India achieved its success reaching Mars in record-breaking time and on a comparative shoe-string budget. Feasibility studies for Mangalyaan, also called the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), began in 2010. Spacecraft development commenced in 2012 and the satellite was launched fifteen months later, in November 2013. It reached Mars nine months later. The mission cost is given by ISRO as $76 million, far less than the American $671 million Maven mission that entered Mars orbit the same week as Mangalyaan or even, as noted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the $100 million Hollywood space blockbuster Gravity. India’s remarkable achievement wasn’t, however, the result of India perfecting warp drive, inventing Unobtanium or Impossibilium, or having better science and engineering geeks than anyone else. It was the product of a confluence of domestic and international factors that just plain worked out well for India.

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Factor 1: Geostrategic Influence. With the many successes of the Chinese space program, through its Shenzhou human spaceflight program and Chang’e robotic lunar program, India has been left looking like one of several distant “also ran” competitors in the Asian space race, along with Japan and more recently South Korea. Given that space exploration has traditionally carried with it significant technology leadership implications – witness the American Apollo program – India could not allow China’s regional space leadership to go uncontested.

India needed to do something that China had not done before. India needed to get into the record books. India needed to “beat” China. Going to the Moon wouldn’t do it, but going to Mars would. China had attempted a Mars mission with Yinghuo-1, launched in 2011 by Russia. But the mission failed. That failure provided India with an open spot in the space record books, and the geostrategic influence that accompanies those coveted spots.

Factor 2: Bureaucratic Politics. K. Radhakrishnan became chair of ISRO in 2009. Every chair or director of every bureaucracy or organization wants to leave a legacy, to be remembered for an accomplishment during his or her tenure. Radhakrishnan was no different. His predecessor, G. Madhaven Nair, would be well remembered for Chandrayaan-1, India’s first lunar mission, launched in 2008 and operated until 2009. Nair stepped down in 2009.

An agreement had been signed in 2007 between India and Russia for Chandrayaan-2 to be a joint mission, with India supplying a lunar orbiter and rover, and Russia the lander. Few people, however, remember the person responsible for the “second” mission of somebody’s else’s success. But Chandrayaan-2 was already in development so it appeared Radhakrishnan would (merely) be left to complete the mission.

The Chandrayaan-1 and 2 orbiters were basically the same hardware so India experienced no problems with development of the second orbiter. In 2009, however, it began to be clear that Russia was experiencing hardware development delays. Initially the mission was postponed to 2016, but eventually Russia cancelled its participation and India was left to complete the mission on its own terms and its own time. And it left India with a nearly completed Chandrayaan spacecraft in 2009-2010. Opportunity was knocking for Radhakrishnan to create his own, even bigger, legacy with a Mars mission by reconfiguring the hardware.

Factor 3: Scientists Love Data. Scientists in the United States was anxiously preparing to launch their own Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, MAVEN, in 2013. MAVEN would carry eight instruments to study the upper atmosphere of Mars, the area considered of importance to understanding the Martian climate. Specifically, data from MAVEN could yield clues to where the water went that was believed to have once been on Mars.

But among the planetary community generally and those who study Mars specifically, the absence or presence of methane as an indicator of primitive life had been an increasingly hot topic. MAVEN, however, was not equipped to sniff for methane. Although a relatively small spacecraft (15 kg, or 33 lbs) and billed primarily as a technology testbed, Mangalyaan could and did carry an instrument: a methane sniffer. That added a piece to the puzzle that NASA scientists were working on, and with that their largesse.

What did India need that NASA could supply? India needed assistance finding its way to Mars. In October 2013, India and the U.S. signed an agreement under which the U.S. would provide deep space navigation and tracking support services to India.

Factor 4: Geopolitical Schadenfreude. China’s successes in space during a time when the U.S. human exploration program is at best regrouping, more commonly thought to be simply foundering, have created the perception that China is “beating” the U.S. in space. While China is not doing anything that the U.S. hasn’t already done, years ago, perception becomes reality over time. So given the opportunity to have access to importance scientific data from the Indian spacecraft and have China lose a spot in the space records book to a democratic country the U.S. has pledged to work with in space, it was a no-brainer.

K. Radhakrishnan stepped down as ISRO Chair at the end of 2014, replaced by Shailesh Nayak. But Radhakrishnan’s ISRO legacy was clearly established. Certainly ISRO will continue to move forward in space exploration, but it is unlikely that Mangalyaan-like opportunities will present themselves on a regular basis. India will undoubtedly move forward with its space exploration agenda, but on a more measured and incremental basis. While India has, for example, set its sights on human spaceflight, given that it does not yet have a human-rated launch vehicle it is highly unlikely that goal will be achieved within this decade.

Yet what all spacefaring nations can learn from the Mangalyaan experience is that chances for leaps forward do present themselves. Mangalyaan was a win-win experience for India and the U.S. Scientists and agencies should be on the look out for similar opportunities to that of taking the postponement/cancellation of Chandrayaan-2 and the desire for a methane sniffer and turning it into a globally lauded scientific achievement. Here again, cooperation turned lemons into lemonade.

Joan Johnson-Freese is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not represent the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College.

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