The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO

For space, frugality is a harmful aspiration


‘ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to cost lesser than Hollywood movie Interstellar – here’s how they make it cost-effective’, staff, Moneycontrol, February 20, 2018. 

‘Chandrayaan-2 mission cheaper than Hollywood film Interstellar’, Surendra Singh, Times of India, February 20, 2018. 

The following statements from the Moneycontrol and Times of India articles have no meaning:

  1. The cost of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was less than the production cost of the film Gravity.
  2. The cost of ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission is expected to be less than the production cost of the film Interstellar.

It’s like saying the angular momentum of a frog is lower than the speed of light. “But of course,” you’re going to say, “we’re comparing angular momentum to speed – they have different dimensions”. Well, the production cost of a film and mission costs also have different dimensions if you cared to look beyond the ‘$’ prefix. That’s because you can’t just pick up two dollar figures, decide which one’s lower and feel good about that without any social and economic context.

For example, what explains the choice of films to compare mission costs to? Is it because Gravity and Interstellar were both set in space? Is it because both films are fairly famous? Is it also because both films were released recently? Or is it because they offered convenient numbers? It’s probably the last one because there’s no reason otherwise to have picked these two films over, say, After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant – all of which were set in space AND cost less to make than Interstellar.

So I suspect it would be equally fair to say that the cost of C’yaan 2 is more than the budget of After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant. But few are going to spin it like this because of two reasons:

  1. The cost of anything has to be a rational, positive number, so saying cost(Y) is less than cost(X) would imply that cost(X) > cost(Y) ≥ 0; however, saying cost(Y) is greater than cost(X) doesn’t give us any real sense of what cost(Y) could be because it could approach ∞ or…
  2. Make cost (Y) feel like it’s gigantic, often because your reader assumes cost(Y) should be compared to cost(X) simply because you’ve done so

Now, what comparing C’yaan 2’s cost to that of making Interstellar achieves very well is a sense of the magnitude of the number involved. It’s an excellent associative mnemonic that will likely ensure you don’t forget how much C’yaan 2 cost – except you’d also have to know how much Interstellar cost. Without this bit of the statement, you have one equation and two variables, a.k.a. an unsolvable problem.

Additionally, journalists don’t use such comparisons in other beats. For example, when the Union budget was announced on February 1 this year, nobody was comparing anything to the production costs of assets that had a high cultural cachet. Rs 12.5 crore was Rs 12.5 crore; it was not framed as “India spends less on annual scholarships for students with disabilities than it cost to make Kabali“.

This suggests that such comparisons are reserved by some journalists for matters of space, which in turn raises the possibility that those journalists, and their bosses, organisations and readers, are prompted to think of costs in the space sector as something that must always be brought down. This is where this belief becomes pernicious: it assumes a life of its own. It shouldn’t. Lowering costs becomes a priority only after scientists and engineers have checked tens, possibly hundreds, of other boxes. Using only dollar figures to represent this effort mischaracterises it as simply being an exercise in cost reduction.

So, (risking repetition:) comparing a mission cost to a movie budget tells us absolutely nothing of meaning or value. Thanks to how Moneycontrol’s phrased it, all I know now is that C’yaan 2 is going to cost less than $165 million to make. Why not just say that and walk away? (While one could compare $165 million to mission costs at other space agencies, ISRO chief K. Sivan has advised against it; if one wants to compare it to other PSUs in India, I would advise against it.) The need to bring Interstellar into this, of course, is because we’ve got to show up the West.

And once we’re done showing up the West, we still have to keep. Showing up. The West. Because we’re obsessed with what white people do in first-world countries. If we didn’t have them to show up, who knows, we’d have framed ISRO news differently already because we’d have been able to see $165 million for what it is: a dimensionless number beyond the ‘$’ prefix. Without any other details about C’yaan 2 itself, it’s pretty fucking meaningless.

Please don’t celebrate frugality. It’s an unbecoming tag for any space programme. ISRO may have been successful in keeping costs down but, in the long run, the numbers will definitely go up. Frugality is a harmful aspiration vis-à-vis a sector banking on reliability and redundancy. And for fuck’s sake, never compare: the act of it creates just the wrong ideas about what space agencies are doing, what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re doing it. For example, consider Sivan’s answer when asked by a Times of India reporter as to how ISRO kept its costs down:

Simplifying the system, miniaturising the complex big system, strict quality control and maximising output from a product, make the missions of Indian space agency cost-effective. We keep strict vigil on each and every stage of development of a spacecraft or a rocket and, therefore, we are able to avoid wastage of products, which helps us minimise the mission cost.

If I didn’t know Sivan was saying this, I’d have thought it was techno-managerial babble from Dilbert (maybe with the exception of QC). More importantly, Sivan doesn’t say here what ISRO is doing differently from other space agencies (such as, say, accessing cheaper labour), which is what would matter when you’re rearing to go “neener neener” at NASA/ESA, but sticks to talking about what everyone already does. Do you think NASA and ESA waste products? Do they not remain vigilant during each and every stage of development? Do they not have robust QC standards and enforcement regimes?

Notice here that Sivan isn’t saying “we’re doing it cheaper than others”, only that doing these things keeps the space agency “cost-effective”. Cost-effective is not the same as frugal.

Featured image: The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO.

After less than 100 days, Curiosity renews interest in Martian methane

A version of this story, as written by me, appeared in The Hindu on November 15, 2012.

In the last week of October, the Mars rover Curiosity announced that there was no methane on Mars. The rover’s conclusion is only a preliminary verdict, although it is already controversial because of the implications of the gas’s discovery (or non-discovery).

The presence of methane is one of the most important prerequisites for life to have existed in the planet’s past. The interest in the notion was increased when Curiosity found signs that water may have flowed in the past through Gale Crater, the immediate neighbourhood of its landing spot, after finding sedimentary settlements.

The rover’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), which analysed a small sample of Martian air to come to the conclusion, had actually detected a few parts per billion of methane. However, recognising that the reading was too low to be significant, it sounded a “No”.

In an email to this Correspondent, Adam Stevens, a member of the science team of the NOMAD instrument on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter due to be launched in January 2016, stressed: “No orbital or ground-based detections have ever suggested atmospheric levels anywhere above 10-30 parts per billion, so we are not expecting to see anything above this level.”

At the same time, he also noted that the 10-30 parts per billion (ppb) is not a global average. The previous detections of methane found the gas localised in the Tharsis volcanic plateau, the Syrtis Major volcano, and the polar caps, locations the rover is not going to visit. What continues to keep the scientists hopeful is that methane on Mars seems to get replenished by some geochemical or biological source.

The TLS will also have an important role to play in the future. At some point, the instrument will go into a higher sensitivity-operating mode and make measurements of higher significance by reducing errors.

It is pertinent to note that scientists still have an incomplete understanding of Mars’s natural history. As Mr. Stevens noted, “While not finding methane would not rule out extinct or extant life, finding it would not necessarily imply that life exists or existed.”

Apart from methane, there are very few “bulk” signatures of life that the Martian geography and atmosphere have to offer. Scientists are looking for small fossils, complex carbon compounds and other hydrocarbon gases, amino acids, and specific minerals that could be suggestive of biological processes.

While Curiosity has some fixed long-term objectives, they are constantly adapted according to what the rover finds. Commenting on its plans, Mr. Stevens said, “Curiosity will definitely move up Aeolis Mons, the mountain in the middle of Gale Crater, taking samples and analyses as it goes.”

Curiosity is not the last chance to look more closely for methane in the near future, however.

On the other side of the Atlantic, development of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), with which Mr. Stevens is working, is underway. A collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency, the TGO is planned to deploy a stationary Lander that will map the sources of methane and other gases on Mars.

Its observations will contribute to selecting a landing site for the ExoMars rover due to be launched in 2018.

Even as Curiosity completed 100 days on Mars on November 14, it still has 590 days to go. However, it has also already attracted attention from diverse fields of study. There is no doubt that from the short trip from the rim of Gale Crater, where it is now, to the peak of Aeolis Mons, Curiosity will definitely change our understanding of the enigmatic red planet.