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The $74m Mars mission benefits India every bit as much as clean water

Last week India sent a satellite into orbit around Mars,with a low-cost, nimble mission that has stunned the world. At $74m over three years, the cost was roughly one-ninth that of the latest (also successful) US mission, which took six years. And in reaching the red planet on its first attempt, India’s space agency succeeded where many other leading powers – including the US, Russia,China and Japan– failed.

To reach Mars, Mangalyaan (or “Mars craft” in Hindi) had initially to execute a complex slingshot trajectory, swinging around the Earth several times to generate speed using the planet’s gravity field. Once it arrived at its destination, its dormant systems and engines were awoken, programming delicate remote manoeuvres while the craft operated on battery power on the planet’s dark side. It was not the shoestring budget alone but also the quality of the pictures transmitted that excited scientists around the world.

Many argue the money would have been better spent on clean water and toilets in what remains in many places a desperately poor country,and they have a point. But in assuming that spending on space is a hobby of rich countries alone, they fail to realise that nation building entails the memory of heroic achievements such as this one, which will go on to inspire generations of children to pursue careers in pure and applied sciences.The value of this inspiration is incalculable in developing the sort of talent that can disproportionately benefit a nation.

The investment in the project was less than the $100m budget for the film Gravity, or even a Bollywood blockbuster. How did Indian scientists succeed so economically? It is not simply that people costs are lower, or that homemade technologies are cheaper than imports. It is because project managers focused on a few crucial objectives and executed them brilliantly. This is what impresses international scientists such as Britain’s Professor Andrew Coates, who will be a principal investigator on Europe’s 2018 Mars rover mission.

Mangalyaan will confine itself to measuring methane in the atmosphere, perhaps the most important research subject because it relates to the possibility of life on Mars. Western scientists are excited over the Indian probe, since it will dovetail nicely with US and European efforts. “It means we’ll be getting three-point measurements, which is tremendous,” says Prof Coates.

No one understands the modernising value of the Mars mission better than Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. In a society beset by middle-class insecurities, science is increasingly neglected in favour of more practical careers in business, law and engineering. This is a valuable chance to revive its popularity. This mission reminded the nation of an earlier generation that had produced outstanding scientists, some of them Nobel Prize winners, who are remembered for world-famous contributions such as the Raman effect, the Saha equation and the Chandrasekhar Limit. As Mangalyaan entered the red planet’s orbit last week, Mr Modi urged every college and school to spend five minutes savouring the moment, just as they would a cricket victory.

The next day he launched his “Make in India”campaign, aimed at persuading companies to invest in the country and at bolstering its unsuccessful manufacturing industry. The satellite’s success was the result of a “can do” attitude, he said.

More of that approach is needed in a country that has performed below its potential,too often held back by red tape and corruption. The Mars mission has provided at least a temporary boost to the image of India’s public sector. It is reassuring to Mr Modi, who has disappointed liberals like me, frustrated by the lack of market reforms. We are beginning to realise that Mr Modi is a pragmatic, nationalist moderniser, not a liberal reformer such as former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He plans to transform India by improving the functioning of the state–through better execution and efficient delivery of services. Like China’s Deng Xiaoping, he will reform pragmatically–without worrying about the colour of the cat, as long as it catches mice.

Gurcharan Das, October 14th 2014

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