Myths from Mars

Debates on space exploration in India have to move from costs to value.

The incredible inexpensiveness of the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is a myth that keeps on growing. Saritha Rai writes the latest article on the subject for the New York Times, comparing India’s MOM to the USA’s MAVEN:

“Ours is a contrasting, inexpensive and innovative approach to the very complex mission,” said K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, in an interview at the space agency’s heavily guarded Bangalore headquarters. “Yet it is a technically well-conceived and designed mission,” he said. Wealthier countries may have little incentive to pursue technological advances on the cheap, but not a populous, resource-starved country. So jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters. [Full article: NYTimes, February 17, 2014]

Unfortunately, the Rupees 450 crore / $75 million price tag for the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is very misleading. As I had previously written in Business Standard, reading ISRO’s outcome budget tells us that the accounting cost to ISRO alone is likely double the figure, if not more.

For instance, salaries of ISRO engineers, scientists and top officials are not covered under the Rs 450 crore number – nor is the use of ISRO’s advanced infrastructure facilities such as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram or the autonomous Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad.

A reading of Isro’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. Isro’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one. Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by Isro’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (Isro’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of ISRO, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission. [Business Standard]

Indians have long believed that ISRO’s space programme is more cost-effective and inexpensive compared to foreign competitors. This line is fostered by ISRO, as evident by K Radhakrishnan’s and Roddham Narasimha’s remarks in the NYTimes article. Impressive efforts might have indeed been undertaken to reign in costs, but their arguments need to be substantiated with better evidence that is shared with the public.Before the Mars mission came along, many believed that the PSLV rocket was also far cheaper than foreign competitors. On past scrutiny, even this claim did not stand up.

It is easy to draw comparisons between NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM, but most are spurious. To begin with, MAVEN was almost double the size and is set to enter a trajectory less elliptical than MOM’s, which are both in its favour. Mars Orbiter Mission’s launch mass is only 1340 kilograms because the launch vehicle could not accommodate more and not because of any cost considerations.

India’s MOM was also not any more fuel-efficient than MAVEN. As Emily Lakdawalla explains, MOM had a more complex trajectory because it had much smaller rockets and thus had to employ many smaller bursts of thrust rather than a large one like MAVEN.

It is high time that we moved the space conversations in India from costs to value. India’s Mars mission should be judged on the scientific knowledge it contributes, the technological ability the mission fosters at ISRO, and the technologies it can spinoff for public benefit. For example, a private company called Decagon innovated to build a soil sensory probe for NASA’s Phoenix Lander mission. With early innovation funded through a space programme, Decagon is now deploying the same technology for use in agriculture back on earth. With a more open culture of innovation at ISRO, there is no reason that the Indian economy cannot benefit from better spinoffs.

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