Rendezvous with the Red

Published: September 30, 2014
The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

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.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Malatesh
    Sep 30, 2014 - 2:15AM

    Very sensible article,
    I agree with many people here who believe that India is a poor country and many people are starving.
    That’s why we are developing world class technology so that we can sell it to other countries and earn money and so that we can feed our ‘starving’ people.. And also we can build some toilets..


  • ajeet
    Sep 30, 2014 - 3:42AM

    Poverty didn’t stop pakistan from trying to get strategic depth in Afghanistan.


  • Sid
    Sep 30, 2014 - 3:44AM

    Amen bro!!. Will be the most wonderful moment when Indian and Pakistani astronaut will together make a space walk using desi made craft. Dream about Indian subcontinent’s own space station :)
    There is lot to achieve for our people if we set aside juvenile fights over landsRecommend

  • Salman
    Sep 30, 2014 - 5:11AM

    A well-reasoned and informative article. We Pakistanis should resist the temptation to belittle any news that shows India in a positive light.


  • IndianDude
    Sep 30, 2014 - 6:26AM

    You (the author) sir, are a true gentleman and a scholar! May your tribe in Pakistan increase for yours as well as our sake.


  • Spock
    Sep 30, 2014 - 8:48AM

    Most important is India has broken the hegemony of west and rich countries in space through it Moon and Mars mission. It has successfully demonstrated that if you put your hearts and minds in to it then anything is possible.


  • ABCD
    Sep 30, 2014 - 10:10AM

    Great piece writer! And kudos to ET for publishing this kind of point of view.


  • Abid Chinioti
    Sep 30, 2014 - 12:00PM

    Just because it is inconvenient for hindutava warriors, sensible people will not stop questioning this utterly shameful waste of aid money. I regularly donate to so many aid organizations working in Occupied Kashmir and elsewhere to help the pitiable plight of indian muslims, conveniently forgotten by their own government for 67 years. So I have every right to protest this wasteful trip to a dead lump of rock, millions of miles away.


  • Shagufta Samar
    Sep 30, 2014 - 12:09PM

    **> Does it bother us when countries like

    Iran or Algeria or Nigeria make
    substantial investments in their space

    No it doesn’t – because these countries don’t invest at the cost of feeding there minorities, and no oppressed minorities from these countries try to flee to Pakistan as a result. In india’s case though, such systematic diversion of aid money meant for poor muslims will soon leave Pakistan with a refugee crisis a hundred times worse than the afghan refugee crisis – so we have every right to protest. Hope that clears it up for the learned professor.


  • bharatvarsh
    Sep 30, 2014 - 12:11PM

    Sensible author sensible article


  • Parvez
    Sep 30, 2014 - 1:17PM

    Great article…… a country spends it’s money, is up to that country to decide and in this case I think it was an excellent decision, because the benefit from this endeavour will be a ripple effect that will impact on both the seen and the unseen.Recommend

  • sreenath
    Sep 30, 2014 - 6:50PM

    Dear Abdul chinioti – Pl note what ever you are donating is not reaching right people. stop talking like this. You should know by highlighting the plight of people, they will collect money and most of the money will be spend on themself. It is a big Business ( including terrorism) Stop searching the corner in the periphery of the circle and appreciate where it is due


  • Milind
    Sep 30, 2014 - 7:58PM

    Sensible article… Just curious – Could you name the books of Prof S R Sarma and Prof B V Subbarayappa you’ve referenced?


  • someone
    Sep 30, 2014 - 7:59PM

    @Shagufta Samar:
    Do you have any data of how many Muslims have migrated from India to Pakistan due to oppression? We have seen so many news in Pakistani dailies about 5000 Hindus/Sikhs moving from Pakistan to India every month.


  • someone
    Sep 30, 2014 - 11:33PM

    @Abid Chinioti:
    First of all, did GoI asked you to donate money? Nope. You are donating it for your own Muslim brothers out of your own compassion. Most probably this money is being used to support separatists activities in Kashmir. Bottom line is, only Indian tax payers have authority how and what GoI is spending money on.


  • Sandip
    Oct 1, 2014 - 1:00AM

    @Abid Chinioti: If you decide to shoot yourself in the foot, why blame others for it? You money probably ends up in the pockets of the likes of Hafiz Saeed and his cohorts. What a wasteful way to part with your hard earned money. As regards your right to protest, looks like you forgot that this was an Indian spacecraft not a Pakistani one. Hence your right to protest in this case is non-existent.


  • Sandip
    Oct 1, 2014 - 1:02AM

    @Shagufta Samar: I had to blink my eye and pinch myself to make sure I was actually reading your comment. Looks like you have completely lost it lady.


  • Sandip
    Oct 1, 2014 - 1:06AM

    For all our Pakistani friends who seem to be so concerned about poverty in India, thank you for your concerns. It’s well-wishers like you who keep us on our toes and propel us to even greater heights. If you may be informed, what India is after is the $300 billion and growing space market. This is where India’s next boom in employment will come from. So you see, there is a method to the madness.


  • Alladitta
    Oct 1, 2014 - 2:46PM

    Come on Pakistanis, rally behind me, we should give intelligent answers to India and not create misconceptions like Shagufta above who tried to teach all of us. Does anyone know a single Indian Muslim who has migrated to Pakistan, except criminals of course like Dawood Ibrahim. Even their daughter in law, the tennis player from India, whats her name, refuses to go to Pakistan even temporarily. Lets not spread lies, the world is wise to our shenanigans.


  • Jay
    Oct 2, 2014 - 1:37AM

    Most of the criticism of the Mars Orbiter Mission was coming from Europe and it was no doubted seeded by corporations and governments which see their space business being further impacted.

    ISRO has been doing a splendid job over the decades and it does actually turn in a small profit in rupee terms. The space agency has done many wonderful things to enhance the lives of common citizens from providing telecom satellites to predicting cyclones and saving lives. The economic and social impact of its work is not commonly known and certainly not to ignorant western journalists with an agenda.

    India would have to spend billions of dollars on advertizing alone to create the kind of scientific awareness which the MOM has generated. Previously a bad Mars was something to be treated carefully in a horoscope. Now every chaiwallah knows how to get there!!!


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