A trip to Mars doesn't have to break the bank

A trip to Mars doesn't  have to break the bank

In India, space research gets only a meager 0.34 per cent of the country’s total annual outlay

While India’s recent launch of a spacecraft to Mars was a remarkable feat in its own right, it is the $75 million mission’s thrifty approach to time, money and materials that is getting attention.

Just days after the launch of India’s Mangalyaan satellite, NASA sent off its own Mars mission, five years in the making, named Maven. Its cost: $671 million. The budget of India’s Mars mission, by contrast, was just three-quarters of the $100 million that Hollywood spent on last year’s space-based hit, ‘Gravity.’ 

“The mission is a triumph of low-cost Indian engineering,” said Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist and a professor at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research. India’s 3,000-pound Mars satellite carries five instruments that will measure methane gas, a marker of life on the planet. Maven (for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), weighs nearly twice as much but carries eight heavy-duty instruments that will investigate what went wrong in the Martian climate, which could have once supported life.

“Ours is a contrasting, inexpensive and innovative approach to the very complex mission,” said K Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (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, 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.

In India, even a priority sector like space research gets a meager 0.34 percent of the country’s total annual outlay. Its $1 billion space budget is only 5.5 percent of NASA’s budget.

ISRO has learned to make cost-effectiveness a daily mantra. Its inexpensive but reliable launch capabilities have become popular for the launches of small French, German and British satellites. Although the space agency had to build ground systems from scratch, its Chandrayaan moon mission in 2008 cost one-tenth what other nations’ moon shots cost, said Mylswamy Annadurai, mission director.

The most obvious way ISRO does it is low-cost engineering talent, the same reason so many software firms use Indian engineers. India’s abundant supply of young technical talent helped rein in personnel costs to less than 15 percent of the budget. “Rocket scientists in India cost very little,” said Ajey Lele, a researcher at a New Delhi think tank, the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, and author of “Mission Mars: India’s Quest for the Red Planet.”

The average age of India’s 2,500-person Mars team is 27. “At 50, I am the oldest member of my team; the next oldest is 32,” said Subbiah Arunan, the project’s director. Entry-level Indian space engineers make about $1,000 a month, less than a third of what their Western counterparts make.

Cost-effectiveness

The Indians also had a short development schedule that contributed heavily to the mission’s low cost, said Andrew Coates, planetary scientist at University College London and a leader of the European ExoMars expedition planned for 2018. The engineers had to compress their efforts into 18 months (other countries’ space vehicles have taken six years or more to build).

It was either launch by November 2013 or wait another 26 months when the geometry of the sun, Mars and Earth would again be perfect for a launch. “Since the time was so short, for the first time in the history of such a project, we scheduled tasks by the hour — not days, not weeks,” said Arunan.

The modest budget did not allow for multiple iterations. So, instead of building many models, scientists built the final flight model right from the start. Expensive ground tests were also limited. “India’s ‘late beginner’ advantage was that it could learn from earlier mission failures,” said Lele.

“It is a question of philosophy, and each country has its own,” explained Radhakrishnan. His agency curbed costs by another technique familiar to businesses in India: transforming old technology into new. The launch vehicle was first developed in the late 1970s and was augmented several times to become the solid propulsion system currently used in its latest Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehiclelauncher.

The GSLV’s engine also dates back to the early 1970s, when ISRO engineers used technology transferred from France’s Ariane program. The same approach, which the Indian scientists call modularity, extended to building spacecraft and communication systems. “We sometimes have to trade off an ideal configuration for cost-effectiveness, but the heritage is being improved constantly,” said Radhakrishnan.

Cost savings also came from using similar systems across a dozen concurrent projects. Many related technologies could be used in the Mars project; Astrosat, an astronomy mission to be launched in late 2014; the second moon mission, which is two years away; and even Aditya, a solar mission four years out.

Systems like the attitude control, which maintains the orientation of the spacecraft; the gyro, a sensor that measures the satellite’s deviation from its set path; or the star tracker, a sensor that orients the satellite to distant objects in the celestial sphere, are the same across several ISRO missions.

Teams also did the kind of thing engineers working on missions do around the world. They worked through weekends with no overtime pay, putting in more hours to the dollar. Mr Arunan slept on the couch in his office through the 18 months, rereading his favorite P G Wodehouse novels to relieve stress. "This is the Indian way of working,” said Mr Annadurai.

Despite its cost-effectiveness, many have argued that India’s extraterrestrial excursions are profligate in a country starved of even basic necessities like clean drinking water and toilets. Critics condemn the Mars mission as nothing more than showing off.

But scientists have argued that early Indian satellites paved the way for today’s advanced disaster management systems and modern telecom infrastructure. In the 1970s, cyclones killed tens of thousands of people. Last year, when Cyclone Phailin struck India’s east coast, the casualties were in the single digits. In the 1980s, television broadcasts were available in only four Indian cities, but today they are found countrywide.

The Mars mission is also having a multiplier effect on Indian industry. Scientists have also said that space exploration and the alleviation of poverty need not be mutually exclusive.

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