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.

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.

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.