Tag Archives | Guns vs Butter

In Pragati: Not quite over the moon

I write in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review this week about the Indian space programme and the challenges it is facing today.

Space exploration is a public venture in more than one sense. It has traditionally been taken up by nations and it rarely escapes public regard and reason, be it for better or for worse. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) completed its one hundredth mission last September, by launching two French satellites into a low earth orbit. While space exploration is a public venture, discussions around it in India remain limited and fall into two categories. There is an endless refrain about how a poverty-stricken country like India can spend public money on space, and there is often significant discussion around the popular scientific and technical aspects of space missions. Beyond this, there is little critical debate around what the Indian space programme needs to do to stay relevant and useful to India at large.

Third, ISRO needs to accelerate its transformation to an outward-facing organisation. ISRO developed its culture of innovation in isolation, but today foreign states, international and Indian corporations are all capable and willing to partner with India. As a credible player in space, ISRO is in a position to do so on equal footing. Space and defence are two high technology sectors where having a diverse set of innovators allows for greater spinoffs that benefit the larger economy. While the United States and other countries are reducing the size of their much larger space programmes and laying off talented people in the process, India has the opportunity to absorb as many of them as possible. FDI in space is an equally attractive option that has unfortunately garnered little discussion to date. Indian commercial needs, especially of transponders for broadcasting TV channels, has been growing at a faster rate than what ISRO can provide for. This begs the question of whether commercial space technology needs to be provided by a monopoly public institution, or if some competition can be incrementally introduced.

Thanks to human ingenuity and the establishment of strong institutions, Indian space exploration has come a long way since the launch of a sounding rocket in 1963. Going forward, the Indian Space Research Organisation has to aim high and pursue lofty goals like human spaceflight, take the public into confidence and embrace a more open culture of innovation.
[Full article – Pragati, July 2013]

We cannot stop today at just cheering successful satellite launches, but need to expect a lot more from ISRO. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, going into low earth orbit is to boldly go where many have gone before. The Indian space programme needs loftier goals to truly benefit Indian society at large.

PS. You may also be interested in reading the very first post on this blog, on why we should stop using poverty as an excuse to reduce public spending on space.

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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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