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.

No Space Age for us

There’s a 500-word section on the Wikipedia page for the NASA Space Shuttle that describes the markings on the programme’s iconic orbiter vehicle (OV). Specifically, it talks about where the words ‘NASA’ and ‘USA’ appeared on the vehicle’s body, if there were any other markings, as well as some modifications to how the flag was positioned. Small-time trivia-hunters like myself love this sort of thing because, whether in my imagination or writing, being able to recall and describe these markings provides a strong sense of character to the OV, apart from making it more memorable to my readers as well as myself.

These are the symbols in our memories, the emblem of choices that weren’t dictated by engineering requirements but by human wants, ambitions. And it’s important to remember that these signatures exist and even more so to remember them because of what they signify: ownership, belonging, identity.

Then again, the markings on an OV are a part of its visual identity. A majority of humans have not seen the OV take off and land, and there are many of us who can’t remember what that looked like on TV either. For us, the visual identity and its attendant shapes and colours may not be very cathartic – but we are also among those who have consumed information of these fascinating, awe-inspiring vehicles through news articles, podcasts, archival footage, etc., on the internet. There are feelings attached to some vague recollections of a name; we recall feats as well as some kind of character, as if the name belonged to a human. We remember where we were, what we were doing when the first flights of iconic missions took off. We use the triggers of our nostalgia to personalise our histories. Using some symbol or other, we forge a connection and make it ours.

This ourness is precisely what is lost, rather effectively diluted, through the use of bad metaphors, through ignorance and through silence. Great technology and great communication strive in opposite directions: the former is responsible, though in only an insentient and mechanistic way, for underscoring the distance – technological as much as physical – between starlight and the human eye that recognises it; the latter hopes to make us forget that distance. And in the absence of communication, our knowledge becomes clogged with noise and the facile beauty of our machines; without our symbols, we don’t see the imprints of humanity in the night sky but only our loneliness.

Such considerations are far removed from our daily lives. We don’t stop (okay, maybe Dennis Overbye does) to think about what our journalism needs to demand from history-making institutions – such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – apart from the precise details of those important moments. We don’t question the foundations of their glories as much as enquire after the glories themselves. We don’t engender the creation of sanctions against long-term equitable and sustainable growth. We thump our chests when probes are navigated to Mars on a Hollywood budget but we’re not outraged when only one scientific result has come of it. We are gratuitous with our praise even when all we’re processing are second-handed tidbits. We are proud of ISRO’s being removed from bureaucratic interference and, somehow, we are okay with ISRO giving access only to those journalists who have endeared themselves by reproducing press releases for two decades.

There’s no legislation that even says all knowledge generated by ISRO lies in the public domain. Irrespective of it being unlikely that ISRO will pursue legal action against me, I do deserve the right to use ISRO’s findings unto my private ends without anxiety. I’m reminded every once in a while that I, or one of my colleagues, could get into trouble for reusing images of the IRNSS launches from in a didactic video we made at The Wire (or even the image at the top of this piece). At the same time, many of us are proponents of the open access, open science and open knowledge movements.

We remember the multiwavelength astronomy satellite launched in September 2015 as “India’s Hubble” – which only serves to remind us how much smaller the ASTROSAT is than its American counterpart. How many of you know that one of the ASTROSAT instruments is one of the world’s best at studying gamma-ray bursts? We discover, like hungry dogs, ISRO’s first tests of a proto-RLV as “India’s space shuttle”; when, and if, we do have the RLV in 2030, wouldn’t we be thrilled to know that there is something wonderful about it not just of national provenance but of Indian provenance, too?

Instead, what we are beginning to see is that India – with its strapped-on space programme – is emulating its predecessors, reliving jubilations from a previous age. We see that there is no more of an Indianess in them as much as there is an HDR recap of American and Soviet aspirations. Without communication, without the symbols of its progress being bandied about, without pride (and just a little bit of arrogance thrown in), it is becoming increasingly harder through the decades for us – as journalists or otherwise – to lay claim to something, a scrap of paper, a scrap of attitude, that will make a part of the Space Age feel like our own.

At some point, I fear we will miss the starlight for the distance in between.

Update: We are more concerned for our machines than for our dreams. Hardly anyone is helping put together the bigger picture; hardly anyone is taking control of what we will remember, leaving us to pick up on piecemeal details, to piece together a fragmented, disjointed memory of what ISRO used to be. There is no freedom in making up your version of a moment in history. There needs to be more information; there need to be souvenirs and memorabilia; and the onus of making them needs to be not on the consumers of this culture but the producers.

Space is necessarily multifarious, ISRO

Here’s a great example of why space-exploration is a multifarious industry where it takes excellence on multiple fronts at the same time to make each mission a success, even on seemingly unrelated fronts. The example also shows the pride of financial frugality can last only for so long.

Despite many firsts, ISRO mum on MOM’s findings – Times of India

Answering a specific question after the launch of Astrosat, India’s first astronomy satellite, on September 28, Isro chairman AS Kiran Kumar told TOI: “I cannot get into the specifics. I can, however, say there are several firsts that MOM has found. But it is only fair that the principal investigators (scientists who made the payloads) claim it first in scientific journals.”

Isro was to make this data public on September 24, MOM’s first anniversary in the Martian orbit. The agency, however, had a low-key event on the day and did not reveal anything.

Equipping instruments to be able to capture and relay 1 TB of data a year is only half the job done, the other being to be able to process and publicise it. And without the need to innovate rapidly nor clamour for public support, I don’t think ISRO will ever reform this slow-moving attitude. This is NASA really cashing in – there’s no reason ISRO should be able to, too. Later in the same piece,

So between September 24, 2014 and September 24, 2015, when MOM completed one year in the Martian orbit, it could have taken 456 pictures, of which Isro has made public 13 pictures, with some repetitions of the same spot on Mars.

ISRO keeps up steady trickle of photos from Mars Orbiter

The Wire
May 23, 2015

Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Colour Camera on February 25, 2015, at a spatial resolution of 166 m from an altitude of 3192 km. Credit: ISRO
Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Colour Camera on February 25, 2015, at a spatial resolution of 166 m from an altitude of 3192 km. Credit: ISRO

On May 22, the Indian Space Research Organization released two new pictures snapped by the Mars Orbiter Mission, currently in orbit around the red planet. They were taken by the Mars Colour Camera on-board the orbiter in February and April, and follow a heftier batch of photos released in the third week of March. On the same day, ISRO was given thePioneer Award by the International Space Development Conference, organized by the American National Space Society.

One picture shows Tyrrhenus Mons (above), a major volcanic elevation located in the southern hemisphere of Mars. While it isn’t major in the same sense Mount Olympus Mons is – as the tallest mountain in the Solar System, located almost on the opposite side of the planet – Tyrrhenus is significant for its age and formative history. It is one of the oldest volcanoes on Mars, being 3.7-3.9 billion years old, and formed by hot clouds of ash being blown through the surface by molten rock that suddenly encountered steam or a cloud of gas.

The second picture shows the oddly shaped Pital Crater (below), located near the Valles Marineris canyons below the equator. The picture appears to have been taken in April, from a height of 808 km.

Pital crater, an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars. Credit: ISRO
Pital crater, an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars. Credit: ISRO

The Mars Colour Camera that took the picture is among five scientific payloads. It has an instantaneous field of view ranging from 19.5 m to 4 km and a 2048 x 2048 squared-pixel detector. Its imaging capabilities are also complemented by MOM’s highly elliptical orbit around Mars, which takes it 77,000 km from the planet at one point (its closest orbital approach is at 421 km). The great separation allows the Colour Camera and others to take pictures with large fields of view.

This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO
This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO

The camera has multiple objectives: to image features on the planet’s surface, to map the geological features surrounding probable sources of methane (which are determined by a companion payload called the Methane Sensor for Mars), to image dust-storms over six months and to map the polar ice caps. As an aside, the camera will also provide important context to the data logged by the four other instruments.

Those instruments are a Methane Sensor for Mars, Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (to determine composition of particles), Lyman-Alpha photometer (to measure the relative abundance of hydrogen and deuterium in the upper atmosphere), and Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (to measure thermal radiation).

On March 24 this year, the orbiter completed its original six months around Mars, and the mission was promptly extended by six months (it is now on the verge of completing its eighth month). On the same day, ISRO released a batch of pictures from the Colour Camera, including stunning snaps of the blue-tinged Valles Marineris.

It’s time for ISRO to reach for the (blue) sky

The Wire
May 19, 2015

Almost 40 years after the launch of Aryabhata, the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully placed another satellite into orbit, this time around Mars – becoming the world’s first space agency to have done so in its debut attempt. There are many similarities between the April-1975 launch of Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, and the September-2014 orbit-insertion of the Mars Orbiter Mission. But if the Mars mission suggests India has come a long way, ISRO’s commitment to blue-sky research – putting financial and scientific resources into projects that do not have immediate or even obvious applications – is still not apparent.

Aryabhata was launched at a time when the socio-political climate in India was fraught with uncertainty, and technology was barely a blip on the horizon as the promised secret solution. There had been widespread skepticism about what a scientific satellite – which at the time cost Rs.5 crore to build – could do for a “cow-dung economy”. A skepticism of the same flavour most recently surrounded the Mars Orbiter Mission, with many asking how it could help alleviate poverty in the country.

Symbolic victories

Even though astronomers had planned to use Aryabhata conduct experiments in astrophysics, the satellite suffered an electrical failure after four days in orbit. Nonetheless, it was hailed a success because it was one symbolically. The man responsible for its launch, Vikram Sarabhai, had inspired a nation that anything was possible should one apply herself or himself to it. Since 1962, with the establishment of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Kerala, Sarabhai had rapidly inculcated a generation of scientists fluent in the engineering and physics of building and launching rockets with that belief. By 1975, India had been brought to the doorstep of full-fledged space research.

Sadly, Sarabhai passed away in 1970, although by then he was able to found ISRO (superseding the Indian National Committee for Space Research set up in 1962) in 1969. But despite being born of the seemingly entrepreneurial seed that was Sarabhai’s vision, ISRO seldom engaged in blue-sky, curiosity-driven research – where practical applications are not apparent while the potential for discovering new applications of science is great. This reticence is all the more glaring given the fact that ISRO is one of the few institutions in the country that remains fairly removed from bureaucratic interference despite being substantially funded by the central government.

Despite its open-ended mandate, ISRO has only pursued goals that have well-defined implications, such as expanding the scope of our meteorology, communication and navigation technologies. Agreed, it would have been hard not to focus on such applications-driven nearer-term goals — nearer at least than the prolonged periods of hopefulness often required for blue-sky research — while the government was absorbed in capacity-building in the 1970s.

However, what’s the point of continuing to do predominantly that until the 2010s? For the government, the agency has become the leading provider of solutions to problems in weather-forecasting and communication. Even as Sarabhai had aspired to free India from the clutches of economic frugality through its space program, ISRO had inculcated a space program bereft of scientific curiosity – a frugality of the imagination.

Questioning Sarabhai

It is also worth asking to what end Sarabhai had himself looked to space. The answer is hard to divine, but important to know for what it can tell us about the history of scientists’ ambitions in India. While he believed that space research and, in time, exploration, could make India prosper, did he really support blue-sky research? Or was that simply us extrapolating his ambitions? Did Sarabhai only ever think of space research in terms of pressing it into the nation’s questions of poverty and economic development, or did he one day want to land an astronaut on Mars? There is a telling paragraph in the book A Brief History of Rocketry in ISRO by P Radhakrishnan and PV Manoranjan Rao:

Independent India was lucky to have Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister, for he shared a common ideal with [Homi] Bhabha and Sarabhai. He believed that modern science and technology were indispensable to the development of the country. He declared: ‘Science alone can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, in sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people’.

This bears many similarities to the relationship ISRO enjoyed with subsequent heads of state. Most recently, Narendra Modi took great pride in the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission in September and the successful launch of the GSLV Mk-III launch vehicle in December, both 2014. He also called for ISRO to launch a SAARC satellite, a communication satellite to service South Asia’s nations, which the agency said in March would be ready in 18 months.

However, from 1975 until now in 2015, neither the government nor the agency has professed much interest in defining and pursuing long-term science programs. In that period, ISRO has launched around 60 non-scientific (indigenous) satellites and fewer than 10 scientific satellites. But over 40 years, the problem has evolved to one of systematicity. The problem is not that we haven’t had more scientific satellites but that we are missing a coherent agenda for scientific research. If such an agenda exists, and one hopes it does, it has remained hidden thanks to ISRO’s baffling lack of public outreach.

The 1975 agenda

If the people doubted the applications of Aryabhata and the Mars Orbiter at the times of their launches, they were also quickly won over by their eventual symbolic victories. No doubt these missions were among the most significant of their times, but going ahead, ISRO will have to translate the symbolism to achievements that are better grounded in research agendas and more meaningful to the country’s scientific research community, instead of scattering them across the landscape of our enterprise. A crucial part of this involves public outreach – putting out constant and frequent updates like it did leading up to, and for a bit after, the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Aryabhata’s designation as a satellite for astrophysics research was quickly forgotten as its four-day stint in space was used to herald a new era of resource-surveying and communications satellites. Similarly, the launch of the GSLV Mk-III was not accompanied by any discussions by ISRO on how it was going to leverage the increased payload capacities the advanced launch rocket brought. Finally, while the Mars Orbiter Mission can be seen as a demonstration of ISRO’s capabilities in executing interplanetary missions, the agency has failed to detail how precisely it will be useful for future missions or, in fact, what those missions might be.

The GSLV Mk-III is no jugaad

December 18, 2014

(Note: This piece was written in the future-tense and published before ISRO’s successful test flight this morning.)

Come Thursday, the Indian Space Research Organisation will launch its GSLV Mk-III rocket from its launch pad in Sriharikota. In the run-up, most media attention has been on a conical module the rocket will carry on board. But of greater interest is the rocket itself, which holds the key to making ISRO a serious contender in the international satellite-launch sector.

The module is part of the Crew-Module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment, which will see it being released at an altitude of 126 kilometres, upon which it will re-enter earth’s atmosphere and crash into the Bay of Bengal, some 200 kilometres west of the Andaman Islands.

Scientists at ISRO will monitor CARE during its journey and gather important data about its surface and interiors. If the module’s performance matches their predictions, India will be that much closer to using it as a crew capsule for a manned mission into space planned in the early 2020s.

Cashing in on the growth

Forgotten in the media buzz around the module is the rocket itself.

The Mk-III, a next-generation variant of ISRO’s fleet of geosynchronous satellite launch vehicles, boasts of India’s highest payload capacity yet: 10,000 kilograms to low-earth orbit and 4,000 kilograms to the highly elliptical geostationary-transfer orbit.

If the launch is successful – and if future test flights establish reliability – ISRO’s commercial space programme will be in a position to cash in on the rapidly growing global satellite-launching industry as well as give domestic engineers the leeway to design more sophisticated satellites.

This was an important consideration during the Mars Orbiter Mission. The orbiter itself, currently revolving around the Red Planet, weighs only 15 kilograms because the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’s payload limit to earth orbit is 1,350 kilograms. This includes all the other instruments on board to ensure a smooth journey. A heavier orbiter could have included more than the five instruments it did.

Dependence on others

In this regard, the GSLV Mk-III will be important because it will determine where India’s native space research programme is headed and how it plans to leverage the increased payload mass option.

It will also reduce India’s dependence on foreign launch vehicles to get heavier satellites into orbit, although self-reliance comes with problems of its own. The common choice in lieu of a reliable GSLV has been the French Arianespace programme, which currently serves almost 65% of the Asia-Pacific market. The Mk-III bears many structural similarities to the Ariane 6 variant. Also, both rockets have a liquid main-stage, a cryogenic upper-stage and two solid-fuel boosters.

The Ariane 6 can lift 6,500 kilograms to the geostationary-transfer orbit, and each launch costs India about $95 million. Assuming the cost-per-launch of the Mk-III is comparable to the Mk-II’s, the number approximately comes down to $40 million (this is likely to be slightly higher). Compare this to the global average price-per-launch of vehicles capable of reaching the geostationary-transfer orbit: $145.57 million, as of 2013.

Skyrocketing profits

From 1999 to 2014, ISRO launched 40 foreign satellites, all with PSLV rockets, and earned EUR 50.47 million and $17.17 million (or Rs 505.74 crore) from 19 countries. Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO in charge of handling the contracts with foreign space agencies, has reported profits ranging from Rs 19 crore to Rs 169 crore between 2002 and 2009.

This is a pittance compared to what Arianespace made in 2013 alone: EUR 680.1 million. A reliable launch vehicle to the geostationary-transfer orbit can change this for the better and position ISRO as a serious contender in the space-launch sector, assuming it is accompanied by a more efficient Antrix and an ISRO that is willing to work with foreign counterparts, both private and governmental.

It must also consider expanding its launch capabilities to the geostationary-transfer orbit and prepare to keep up with the 5-15% growth rate recorded in the last five years in the satellites industry. Now is an opportune time, too, to get on the wagon: the agency’s flags are flying high on the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Facing other challenges

ISRO has to be ready to confront the likes of SpaceX, a space transport services company which already has the Falcon 9 rocket that can launch 13,150 kilograms to low-earth orbit and 4,850 kilograms to the geostationary-transfer orbit at starting costs of $57 million per launch.

On another front, ISRO will have to move the public dialogue away from its fixation on big science missions and toward less grandiose but equally significant ones. These will help establish the space agency’s mettle in reliably executing higher-altitude launches, enhancing India’s capabilities in the space-launch and space-research sectors. These will also, in turn, serve to make high-cost missions more meaningful than simple proofs of concepts.

For example, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan has announced that a project report compiled by the agency envisages a Rs 12,400-crore manned space mission by 2021. In the next seven years, thus, ISRO aims to master concepts of re-entry technology, human spaceflight and radiation protection. This will happen not just through repeated test flights and launches of crew modules but also using satellites, space-borne observatories and data analysis.

For all these reasons, the GSLV Mk-III marks an important step by ISRO, one that will expose it to greater competition from European and American launchers, increase its self-reliance in a way that it will have to justify its increasing launch capabilities with well-integrated projects, and help the agency establish a legacy over and beyond the jugaad that took it to Mars.

The Mars Orbiter Mission was launched around the same time as NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars, and with comparable instrumental specifications. While MOM cost ISRO $74 million, MAVEN cost NASA $672 million. In fact, ISRO’s orbiter was by far the least expensive Mars satellite ever built.

A "Dear ISRO" moment

I published a quick analysis in The Hindu, republished with permission from Scienceline, about the ISRO Mars Orbiter. Gist (excerpted):

Even if [ISRO] has launched a spacecraft to Mars, the payload limit and the lack of an inclusive scientific agenda still stand in the way of taking full advantage of scientific interest and infrastructure on the ground.

These are some of the replies I received on Twitter in response to the piece.

You probably didn’t read my piece, and you probably don’t know what “one-hit wonder” means either.

Who are “Thomeses”?

I don’t understand why you think I’ve not been courteous. My arguments weren’t barbaric. And I think it’d be wonderful if people considered constructive criticism the utmost courtesy. I know I do.

A friend of mine recently told me he couldn’t criticize my piece for me because he said that’s not what friends do. But that’s what I think friends do do because appreciation that is completely honest is something very hard to come by.

This is a common blight plaguing the perception of scientific research in India. It’s easy to just say “nanosatellites” and then think about it inside your head. However, what’re they for? Who comes up with such ideas? Who builds them? And at the end of the day where would ISRO go with it? Answer them reasonably and then I’ll concede nanosatellites make sense.

Another aspect of this comment is that you’re thinking in terms of gee-whiz stuff, you’re thinking of demonstrating more technology, but ISRO is too important to indulge in things like that over and over again. It’s a national space agency so let’s be respectful of that.

Someone’s made an allegation and you’re batting it away. Do you know something that nobody else does?



I also received the following comments on the same piece as published on Scienceline (you should check the site out, it’s my NYU program’s science portal and has some other amazing pieces as well).

Thanks you for writing such a wonderful article to put the facts straight.Hope we don’t get overconfident as we have put only small payload of 15 kg whereas others have put 64 kg of payload. Hope a new mission to use GSLV-D5 to put more payload gets approved quickly and gets successful.Anyway achieving success on first maiden flight is no small feat and kudos to Indian Space scientists!!! – Ravikanth V

I’m glad you understand my sentiment.

Mr.Vasudevan, I don’t think you are a father. Only if you have become a father you can appreciate the baby’s steps in the beginning and that which ends even as an Olympic champion. But one has to go thru what is called growth. Hope you understood what I meant. – Bindo

Yeah, I get you, but I don’t want ISRO – nor the nation – to think of its interplanetary exploration program as it would of a child.

Dear writer, You crave attention so bad that, on the day of a historical achievement, you have published such a negative aticle. Shame on you. Have you designed any electronics before? And do you know how challenging is it to achieve that with limited budget? Please do not write such articles for ISRO. People of India take pride in this organization. You should have waited for atleast a day. – Kc

Because all my opinions are suddenly okay after 24 hours? And I think it is my duty as someone who does take pride in ISRO that I feel such things need to be said before we ramp up our expectations to heights the agency may never even have plans for.

Now it’s time for us to show our gratitude to the nation. Indians who are draining their brain to foreign countries, come back to our country as soon as possible. Finish ur commitments soon, ur nation has just made a history and waiting for you. – Dilip

I resent that you’re implying that all those who left the country in search of greener fields are/were opportunists. I also resent that you think the proverbial system is working well enough to be able to reject the oodles of talent still present in the country.

Very well articulated article, thank you. The mission is symbolic and demonstrates our ISRO’s scientific capability. I’m hopeful our new govt. will only be supportive of country’s scientific community, encourage with all means available and pragmatic enough to have or build a plan so, in a decade least, we indeed achieve what we want to be – equally a ‘space superpower’. Albeit this is still a proud moment for we the people of India. Congratulations to the ISRO’s scientific community who made this possible. – Guru Dwarakanath

Again, I’m glad you understand what I’m trying to say.

Slideshow: Mission Mars

The NASA MAVEN spacecraft entered orbit around Mars on Sunday September 21 evening (EST), less than a day ago. A little more than a day from now, on Tuesday September 23 evening (EST), the ISRO MOM spacecraft will attempt the same manoeuvre and lock itself in orbit around the red planet.

When ISRO launched the mission on November 5, 2013, the geopolitical implications of the launch itself were blatantly built up and strutted. This was indeed a technology demonstrator. However, in the 11 months since, the fact that here was a science-driven mission to Mars that had escaped public attention earlier began to sink in. With less than two days to go for orbit insertion, there is a noticeable palpitation among those who’ve been following its journey.

The Americans had the skycrane and their seven minutes of hell. This is India’s ultimate so-near-yet-so-far moment. I’m really hoping this works out.

Building up to this moment, ISRO had released a series of images in an effort to personalize the mission, to get people talking about what MOM would do once it got there, and all that had to be done to get there. Considering how reclusive it’s been in the past, these images (and status updates and tweets) showed the space agency at its most communicative. The images were released periodically, coinciding with each milestone that MOM breached in its 600+ million km journey.

I’ve compiled them into one slideshow below to make visualizing the short history of this mission feel more continuous and immediate instead of as updates we consumed over a year (and from two separate albums on Facebook). They all belong to ISRO; if you wish to reuse them for commercial purposes, please ask them first.