2013 saw India launch a rocket to Mars. It also saw a third of its population living below the poverty line. Just why is India investing in a space program? What if the 16,000 skilled employees in space development worked on water sanitation? Why do we donate money to space-curious countries with a long way to go for population wellbeing?
But it’s not just India; Bolivia, Sri Lanka and around 70 other countries have joined the extra-terrestrial foray. This is not a new subject of contention. It’s one that arises whenever a country in need of humanitarian aid spends millions on space.
Takeoff of the Mars Orbiter Missions (MOM) – informally known as Mangalyaan (Mars-craft) – went to plan. The rocket and its fireball shot up above the Bay of Bengal and disappeared into the sky. MOM had a couple of research aims that divides it from other Mars missions; firstly, a methane sensor which could strengthen the argument for microbes living in the red planet, and secondly an analysis of atmospheric gas loss to outer space, which could inform us of Mars’ history. NASA’s curiosity rover failed to verify methane measurements.
MOM wasn’t just an Indian inquisitiveness. It was world leading – unsurprising after it was an Indian Moon mission in 2008 that first detected evidence of water. Additionally MOM’s cost came in at a comparatively economical £45m. Not bad for a 200m km journey taking 10 months and a satellite furnished with 5 different devices, including a colour camera, intended to orbit Mars for 6 months.
MOM is acting as somewhat of a dry run, too – a technology demonstrator with the aim of improving future satellite design. This is long-term thinking. The chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), Mr Radhakrishnan, described the programme’s expenditure as “meagre”. He, as many others do, separate space exploration from humanitarian issues but is well versed in answering queries as to why India has a space programme.
“The answer then, now and in the future will be: “It is for finding solutions to the problems of man and society.’”
He went on to talk of the space race not as a global competition, but as a “need to excel” within India itself. More than half of all missions to Mars have failed. MOM did not join those ranks. Instead, India’s first interplanetary mission also became the world’s cheapest, and the world’s first to reach Martian orbit on its first attempt. MOM arrived with double the fuel required for its 6 month mission, which it completed on 24th March 2015. Isro promptly extended the mission by 6 more months as all of its instruments continued to function and the craft has more than enough fuel, even following its orbit change to avoid a comet flyby.
It came as no surprise when MOM won the National Space Society’s Space Pioneer Award this year, and was praised for its colour imagery of a high quality of which few existed before. Just last month it captured a spectacular 3D image of Ophir Chasma, part of the solar system’s largest canyons.
Despite all this, MOM and Isro continues to face criticism, branded by Indian news outlet Rediff as “a waste of time and energy”, as lacking in the “true human spirit of space organisation” by content strategists, and a waste of funds by the former Isro chairman Madhaven Nair.
The positive response seems to have been even bigger. Oxfam has been in India for over 60 years fighting poverty socially, environmentally and economically. Its chief executive Nisha Agrawal described India as “not really one country but two in one”, citing its emerging status as a middle-income country (an economy worth about $2 trillion) to explain why Isro exists alongside population inequality. The website firstpost published an article titled “Mangalyaan: Why Western criticism to our Mars mission is blatant racism” which hits hard at Western analysis.
Balaji Viswanathan succinctly writes, “Don’t heap your blame on poor Isro for India’s social conditions” and refers to past colonisation as a factor in that. India’s space program uses under 1% of the country’s GDP and gains have been seen not only with MOM, but with everyday functions. Take, for example, the satellites with a whole host of uses in Earth’s orbit. Increased communications have helped build the Indian service economy immeasurably.
Agricultural information enables farmers to maximise their crop efficiency. Military infrastructure means India can stand up to China’s ever-growing challenges and undertake terrorist observations. Most cited is meteorological data from weather satellites that inform early warning systems: Cyclone Phailin killed over 10,000 people in the Phillipines, which lack satellites. India relied upon Isro’s data and had casualties in the single digits.
India wants – and needs – these services, and if it didn’t provide them itself it would quite possibly spend billions of dollars renting from other country’s satellites. If more economical evidence was required, the launcher which sent the Indian vehicle on its way to Mars has a very high success rate and is attracting investment from other countries such as Japan and France.
Anyway, wouldn’t criticism be hypocritical? Oxfam say that in the UK 1 in 6 parents have gone without food in order to feed their family. We’ve all heard – and some of us have experienced – the news stories of increased reliance on food banks. Yet I don’t see millions of pounds being diverted from Britain’s space organisation to deprived areas of society. This is because choices are made, and we have to respect those. Some people are outraged when they realise people on unemployment benefits have TVs, or that refugees claiming asylum in Europe have smartphones. Why is this such a surprise? When we question people’s choices, we question their autonomy. They have a right to choose what they think is best for them. Quite possibly a means of communication means more to someone fleeing their country than it ever could to us.
It’s no different with space-savvy countries still struggling with population health. The government has chosen to spend money on a highly prosperous space program. We have no right to tell them what to do with their money just because they are less well off than us. If it’s our money that we’re donating, then we can choose what it’s used for. If you want to see better sanitation, give to a community project which focuses on toilet and drinking facilities. Charities and NGOs with a bottom-up approach are your best bet for that. If you don’t want a donation to get lost in a web of government bureaucracy, don’t put it there.
India’s space program, if divided up amongst the population, would cost well under a dollar per person per year. For anyone in the world, seeing something built in their country blasting into space might be the perfect dose of inspiration. Space is one of those strange concepts that grabs the human imagination; our inquisitiveness is potentially what’s made our species so successful. Not content with our own world, we want to know about everything. No matter where you are on a poverty scale you need thoughts to get through the day, ideas to become curious about and hopes to work towards for the future. As the director of Isro’s satellite centre said, “National pride is important.” And who would dare put a price on dreams?