India made a big move earlier today in its space program, launching an unmanned probe to Mars. This feat has supporters of the Indian space effort feeling ecstatic while others begrudge the $74 million spent by a country that still has millions in poverty. In truth, both sides are right, and both are wrong. The launch is more of a political mission than a scientific one.
The launch of the “Mangalyaan” orbiter by the Indian Space Research Organization from the Sriharikota space center in Andhra Pradesh went off flawlessly, and next autumn, the orbiter will reach the red planet. The mission of the probe is to gather weather data and search for methane (which would be taken as evidence of some sort of life in the Martian past). Bearing in mind that America has had rovers in action on Mars for years, it is difficult to see what Mangalyaan could possibly find that has not been uncovered already. There is always a chance, naturally, but the odds are against it.
Instead, India has used this launch to continue positioning itself as one of Asia’s premier spacefaring nations. The more the Indian government can get people to compare it to China rather than to Pakistan the better for the Indian government. China has managed manned space flight, but unmanned probes like Mangalyaan are cheaper and have the capacity to do much more in space under current technology. And of course, if something goes wrong, all one loses with a probe is a bit of self-respect. The fact that China has already failed with a Mars probe makes this mission of great importance in terms of national prestige.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy gushed “The blast off was perfect. It’s a great achievement. ISRO scientists deserve all kudos for the precision-like successful launch. My hearty congratulations to the entire ISRO team. It’s a historic day for the country.” President of the Telugu Desam Party N Chandrababu Naidu (who leads the Loyal Opposition in the state) also congratulated the ISRO team. “ISRO scientists have flown India’s tricolour high in the space by successfully launching Mangalyan. It gives happiness that the 300-day mission has been launched on a successful note, which is another milestone in India’s space programme.”
Detractors, however, are less than excited. “I think it’s so strongly symbolic of an extremely unequal society,” said Harsh Mander, director of New Delhi’s Center for Equity Studies and a former adviser to the prime minister on social issues. “We continue to have something like 230 million people who sleep hungry every night, and millions die because they can’t afford healthcare. Yet these are not issues that cause outrage.”
Mr. Mander is right about the symbolism. Yet, spending the $74 million on the poor would have been a mere drop in the bucket — it wouldn’t have amounted to a dollar a person. And of course, there is the matter of salaries for all the engineers. There are, no doubt, better places from which to take the money; proper taxation of India’s wealthy springs to mind.