Tag Archives | Space exploration

In Business Standard: Setting our sights beyond Mars

On the day after India’s successful Mars orbiter insertion, I write in Business Standard that India and ISRO must now focus on achieving human spaceflight, and that we have to do things differently in order to achieve it:

The target of human spaceflight is necessary because successful space programmes need visible goals to orient themselves and not get lost along the way. They also need public confidence and steady government support since the development cycles are long.

Space exploration is primarily a pursuit of excellence: of exploring the unexplored, doing the impossible and pushing the frontiers of knowledge and human ability. As India has seen in the last decade, having ambitious plans to get to Mars and the moon inspired ISRO to step up its game.

Clear targets like human spaceflight breed innovation and spark creativity. For the Mars mission to succeed, various ISRO wings had to align their objectives and work at their best, as a complex mission requires flawless execution. ISRO needed to figure out deep space communication, precision orbital planning for such a long and complex journey, as well as mechanics and electronics that leave little room for error – and they had to do all of this within a tight deadline.

Similarly, human spaceflight will require ISRO to develop technologies for more powerful launch vehicles capable of transporting larger capsules to space. It will need the ability to re-enter the atmosphere and reach back to earth safely. It will also need all the trappings necessary for humans to survive and thrive while in space, and more. These skills and technologies are transferable, and will eventually aid ISRO’s other efforts and the economy at large.
[Full Article: Setting our Sights Beyond Mars, September 24, 2014]

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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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In Business Standard: Running the space marathon

I write in Business Standard this week on how we must not put too much stock into the 450 crore rupee price tag on the Mars mission and spend what it takes to have a successful space programme:

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.
[Full article: Running the space marathon, December 15, 2013]

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India from space

A small step for ISRO, a giant leap for building consensus around space exploration in India.

India MoM Image of Earth

Humans have looked up at the stars even before language was invented, and the lights above us have always been a part of human imagination and curiosity, be it in religion, philosophy, science or the arts. What changed in the last century is that not only could we look up, but humanity got the ability to go up high and look down. The photograph Earthrise by astronaut William Anders is easily among the most iconic images to date, where a blue earth rises above the scarred lunar surface.

Exploration in general and space exploration in particular have always excited and inspired people in a manner that few other ideas could. Organisations like NASA figured out early on that beyond any scientific or utilitarian purposes, beautiful images from space have immense value in and of themselves. With human spaceflight, astronauts could take photographs manually. But with improvements in photography, image processing and visualisation technologies, even satellite images can now have great aesthetic and communicative value.

Anyone who has glanced at Google Earth or seen any of NASA Earth Observatory’s exquisite pictures already knows the value of visually observing the earth from space.

ISRO and the Indian space programme have been quite slow in realising the same and acting on it. Though India has been sending satellites to space for over three decades now, there are hardly any memorable images one can think of. Rakesh Sharma in his cosmonaut suit comes to mind, and the other is of space launches. Little from the satellites themselves. While several Indian satellites have imaging capabilities of various kinds, they have been put mainly to technical and scientific uses and almost never for public consumption.

India’s Mission to Mars providing the above simple and elegant image of the Indian subcontinent is the latest step in establishing a culture of communicating with the public on the national space programme. Compared to NASA’s high quality, you can see that the image is far from perfect – the clouds are overexposed, the image has been rotated and cropped, and resolution is sub-optimal. But instead of descending into snobbery, we really need to appreciate the increasing effort ISRO is putting in doing this. Earlier in the year ISRO provided some stunning images of the Kumbh mela and the disaster at Kedarnath. Nothing illustrates the changing mindsets at ISRO better than the contrast of these examples to the rather lacklustre photograph of the earth from Chandrayaan – shared below.

chandrayaan-pic-of-earth

Space exploration is a very public affair – for better and for worse. It is exceedingly difficult to hide success or failure from the public eye, and one has to constantly address questions of poverty while spending public monies on space. Visually engaging the public is essential if ISRO wants to think bolder, aim higher and go farther.  One picture from above can help people understand floods or urban growth or complex natural phenomena like no amount of explaining can.

The good news is that NASA has already paved the way for ISRO, and they could also possibly help the latter in setting up a team in-house which can work on a visual exploration of India from space. Below are a curated set of images of India from space, taken by various NASA spacecraft and satellites. Here’s to hoping that their tribe grows larger.

Follow Pavan Srinath India from NASA’s eyes on Pinterest

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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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