Political statues in India cost more than the Mars Orbiter Mission

A very critical moment for the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) comes a week from today when the spacecraft’s engine has to be fired as it reaches perigee in its Earth orbit, to insert  it into  a trajectory to reach Mars some 10 months later.

The Mission has been criticised both in the West and in India (here and here for example) as being too expensive, too elitist and the wrong priority for a developing country like India. I think such criticism misses the point. The Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is primarily a test of technology and capability and self-confidence and self-belief”. The cost pales in comparison with the spend on religious festivities and what other much less productive projects can cost. As an example of what frugal engineering can achieve, the inspiration and ingenuity it can foster is immeasurable.

Manoj KumarPatairiya writes in the New York Times:

If the Mars Orbiter successfully reaches the vicinity of the planet in September 2014, after 300 days’ journey into deep space, it will make India the first Asian country and the fourth in the world to reach the red planet. …. The mission has, however, started an intense debate. While its supporters trumpet its incredibly low cost of around $75 million (a fraction of the cost of a similar American expedition), critics question the logic behind spending any amount when India is dealing with such deep-rooted problems as widespread hunger, poverty and corruption. ……. 

But U. R. Rao, a former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, compared the $75 million spent on the mission to the amount Indians spend on Diwali crackers for one day: “For going all the way to Mars, just one-tenth of the money is being spent. So, why are they shouting?”

Part of the reason the mission is so much less expensive is that it is able to take advantage of existing deep space communications systems and navigation support from NASA. But India is becoming known for its low-cost innovations in many diverse fields, including health care, renewable energy, sanitation, mobile technology and tablet computers. Indian scientists like to share this anecdote: “Americans spent millions to develop a pen that will not leak in space, whereas Russians used a pencil!”

The cost of the Indian Mars mission is about $75 million and just to put it into perspective:

  • Mayawati’s park in Noida was constructed at the cost of $130 million, and has 24 huge statues of elephants, and one of herself.
  • the total cost to build the Narendra Modi sponsored “Statue of Unity” is estimated to be about $340 million

Politicians will of course argue that the “feel-good” effects generated by such monuments to themselves or their heroes are well worth the cost!

If the MOM succeeds in its main objectives, there is even a case for using the window that is coming in 2018 to attempt a manned trip around Mars and back in 501 days.

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