As most of us know by now, last week India’s spacecraft Mangalyaan successfully reached Mars’ orbit. This, given the shoestring budget and the fact that it was India’s first attempt, is highly impressive. The scientific and technological achievement should be recognised on its own merit. Perhaps, it was the success of jugaad (sometimes loosely translated as ‘frugal innovation’) as was stated by the head of Indian Space Agency, or perhaps it was the tenacity of the space scientists, the result itself has profound implications for not only India but other countries in the region and beyond. The issue of poverty and development in India, which many in Pakistan and a few in India have raised, while very important and urgent, is a separate matter, and should not take away anything from the scientific achievement.
There are several important factors in understanding the impact of this historic achievement. First, the price tag needs to be understood in a broader context. The price tag of under $80 million, despite sounding staggering, is actually far below any other country’s budget on a Mars mission. Additionally, the money was not spent in one year or as a lump sum. The funds were invested over the lifetime of the project, making the annual budget much smaller. Some people are claiming that it is simply a matter of money and any country spending that much would be able to send a successful Mars mission. This is also not true as both China (in 2012) and Japan (in 1999) failed in their attempts despite having a much larger budget and a longer history of space science. The success is not only India’s but also of the ‘frugal innovation’ school of thought all around the world.
Second, we humans have always been fascinated by the vastness of space and the profound scale of the heavens above us. Our fundamental curiosity with space, nature and the worlds far away are an integral part of who we are. It has defined our quest for knowledge. In the subcontinent, astronomy has been a major area of investigation. Historical evidence, including that described in detail by Prof S R Sarma and Prof B V Subbarayappa, in their books and articles provide a detailed account of astronomical activities that date back to 14th century BC, through the era that marked the Middle Ages and the colonial period until the recent past. Mangalyaan, in many ways, is the latest success in this long string of successful experiments in understanding our universe.
Third, space sciences and technologies make an impact on other sciences and technologies, and the human life, for generations to come. Whether it is better navigation systems for our cars, improved materials for fire safety, superior computational programmes, better weather prediction systems or artificial limbs, the list of technologies coming out of space sciences is long and has made a profound impact on the way we live. The impact of these technologies in lifting the standard of living of people, including those in the lower economic quadrant, is substantial and cannot be underestimated.
Fourth, we have to be honest with ourselves when we argue that India should have spent money on poverty reduction. Indeed, poverty reduction should be a goal for all, in the developing and the developed countries. But do we cry foul, anytime a developing country, spends money on its space programme? Does it bother us when countries like Iran or Algeria or Nigeria make substantial investments in their space programme? We have to start with honesty in our arguments.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, space programmes have historically inspired the youth to seek answers to our toughest problems, to give them the passion to be at the frontiers of innovation. The impact of this inspiration changes nations and the dividends are collected for decades, perhaps centuries. It is said that the Sputnik moment sparked a revolution in American innovation and created a generation of innovators, scientists and technology pioneers. All of us, in every corner of the world, have collected the fruits of that inspiration.
I hope that Mangalyaan becomes the Sputnik for developing countries and their youth.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2014.