India celebrated the successful launch of its first Mars-bound spacecraft yesterday, becoming the first Asian country to attempt to reach the red planet. The unmanned “Mangalyaan” orbiter’s launch was described as “textbook” by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) officials, with the satellite successfully entering an elliptical orbit around Earth that will slingshot it toward Mars.
Aside from being a scientific and technical triumph, Mangalyaan is also a lesson in economics: the entire project was given a comparatively Spartan budget of only $72 million. To put that figure into perspective, NASA’s upcoming Mars satellite launch will cost the U.S. $671 million with essentially the same goal in mind.
“India, whose economic and technical achievements are often compared unfavorably to those of China, is eager to prove its ability to complete such projects at a reasonable cost,” said The Financial Times.”
The 3,000 pound craft will travel 485 million miles over the course of 300 days. ISRO expects Mangalyaan to enter Mars’ orbit on September 24, 2014. Upon arrival, it will gather images of the Martian landscape, track weather patterns, and probe for traces of methane.
“Experts say the data will improve understanding about how planets form, what conditions might make life possible and where else in the universe it might exist,” wrote The Associated Press.
While many Indians viewed the successful launch as a source of national pride, critics argued that it was an inappropriate waste of money in a country where more than 350 million people survive on less than $1.25 a day.
India spends about $1.1 billion annually on its space program; NASA, on the other hand, requested $17.7 billion for the 2013 fiscal year. Some analysts believe that India could become a viable budget option in the $304 billion global space market, with the potential to surpass China, Japan and Russia with its low-cost technology.
Chinese state media directly criticized the Indian Mars endeavor, pointing at the nation’s poverty and accusing the program as being an attempt to “gain an advantage over China.”
A joint Chinese-Russian attempt to bring a satellite to Mars failed in 2011 after the craft became stuck in Earth’s orbit. Japan also failed to send an orbiter to the red planet in 1998.
“Decades after the U.S. and Soviet Union battled for supremacy in space during the Cold War, Asian powers have embarked on their own space race—a contest with political, military and technical ramifications,” reported The Wall Street Journal.
A space-security expert in New Delhi, speaking to the WSJ, added: “The bread or gun argument is real for India. But India doesn’t live in a benign neighborhood.”
Previously, only the U.S., Russia and Europe have had successful missions to Mars. The implications for an Indian success story are far-reaching here on Earth.