India in Space

India’s Mission to Mars got approved today by the Prime Minister, the Rs. 450 crore ($80 million) plan receiving a final nod. The Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO is to start preparing for launch in November 2013, around when Mars comes close to earth’s orbit.

Whenever any news comes out on India’s space exploration ventures, a host of arguments spring up centered around the question, “How can India spend money to go to space, when there is so much poverty in the country?”

In the first blog post here at The Transition State, I would defend India’s space programme in this “Space vs. Poverty” debate, a twenty-first century variant of the much older “Guns vs. butter” argument.

A central point of debate here is that the resources available at our disposal are finite, and it is up to us to use those wisely. Noted economist Bibek Debroy says the following on his blog:

All resources have opportunity costs.  If they are used for something, they cannot be used for alternative uses.  I am not sure what benefits arise from such missions, apart from the ego part and the elusive pursuit of superpower status.  These are resources that could have been used for primary schools and primary health centres.

So does India’s space programme give us more than just bragging rights? In particular, is there value in a mission to Mars, or in a far more expensive human spaceflight programme?

The answer is a resounding yes. The benefits are several, but I shall list just two of them here.

Space exploration is an extremely powerful agent of inspiration for young minds. Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to go into space on a Russian Soyuz rocket in 1984, and soon after entered our textbooks, our hearts and our minds, motivating an entire generation of school students in India. Indian-born Kalpana Chawla followed suit in 1997, sparking the imagination and ambitions another generation of students. An Indian human spaceflight programme is but a logical extension of the same. Launching spacecrafts seem to be one of a few things that India is quite good at, and it seems silly to stop doing it because we are not so good at many other things.

Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the power of space exploration like no other:

The mainstay of India’s launch vehicles is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV, which had its first successful launch back in 1996, and a total of 19 to date. Along with Indian satellites, the PSLV has also launched satellites from 18 foreign nations. Thanks to payload costs than are lower than that of many foreign spacecraft, Indian commercial space exploration has also grown significantly, leading to small but increasing revenue generated for the government.

These commercial launches are largely restricted to what are called “Low Earth Orbits” and don’t involve the trips to the moon or Mars. However, I would argue that it was the constant drive to tweak the PSLV before each launch, pushing the spacecraft to go faster, farther and with greater loads that has allowed Indian launch vehicles to be as robust and competent as they are today. A mission to Mars will test our scientists and engineers and demand an excellence of them that we could do with a lot more of.

Governance in India is in disarray. One can even make a case for doing more with our space programme, and getting more value out of it. Cutting costs and channeling them elsewhere, however, is far from the answer.

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