Rocket science: how Isro flew to Mars cheap

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 06, 2013 12:23 IST
  • Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan addresses media after the PSLV C25 launch in Sriharikota. (Nathan G/ HT Photo)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan addresses media after the PSLV C25 launch in Sriharikota. (Nathan G/ HT Photo)

  • ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan addresses the media after the PSLV C25 launch (Mars mission), in Sriharikota, India. (HT Photo/ Nathan G)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan addresses the media after the PSLV C25 launch (Mars mission), in Sriharikota, India. (HT Photo/ Nathan G)

  • ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan addresses media after the PSLV C25 launch in Sriharikota. (HT Photo/ Nathan G)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan addresses media after the PSLV C25 launch in Sriharikota. (HT Photo/ Nathan G)

  • ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan addresses media after the PSLV C25 launch (Mars mission), in Sriharikota. (HT Photo/ Nathan G)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan addresses media after the PSLV C25 launch (Mars mission), in Sriharikota. (HT Photo/ Nathan G)

  • PSLV-C25 launch vehicle carrying the Mars Orbiter probe as its payload moments after lift-off, in Sriharikota. With Mangalyaan

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    PSLV-C25 launch vehicle carrying the Mars Orbiter probe as its payload moments after lift-off, in Sriharikota. With Mangalyaan's successful launch, India joined the US,...

  • Visitors to the Nehru Planetarium watch the live telecast of the launch of India

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    Visitors to the Nehru Planetarium watch the live telecast of the launch of India's Mars Orbiter Mission (AFP Photo)

  • The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25) rocket lifts off carrying India

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25) rocket lifts off carrying India's Mars spacecraft from the east-coast island of Sriharikota (AP Photo)

  • PSLV-C25 launch vehicle carrying the Mars Orbiter probe as its payload moments after lift-off, in Sriharikota, India. (Nathan G/HT file photo)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    PSLV-C25 launch vehicle carrying the Mars Orbiter probe as its payload moments after lift-off, in Sriharikota, India. (Nathan G/HT file photo)

  • This television frame grab taken from television channel NDTV, broadcasting live footage from Doordarshan, shows the PSLV-C25 launch vehicle carrying the Mars Orbiter probe. (AFP Photo)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    This television frame grab taken from television channel NDTV, broadcasting live footage from Doordarshan, shows the PSLV-C25 launch vehicle carrying the Mars Orbiter...

  • India on Tuesday launched its first spacecraft bound for Mars, a complex mission that it hopes will demonstrate and advance technologies for space travel. (AP Photo)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    India on Tuesday launched its first spacecraft bound for Mars, a complex mission that it hopes will demonstrate and advance technologies for space travel. (AP Photo)

  • In this photograph taken on September 11, scientists and engineers work on a Mars Orbiter vehicle at the Indian Space Research Organisation

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    In this photograph taken on September 11, scientists and engineers work on a Mars Orbiter vehicle at the Indian Space Research Organisation's satellite centre in...

  • Andhra Pradesh media people protest against bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in front of ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan as he enters the media center in Sriharikota, India. (HT Photo/ Nathan G)

    Mangalyaan takes off!

    Andhra Pradesh media people protest against bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in front of ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan as he enters the media center in Sriharikota,...

India’s successful Mangalyaan launch is as much a financial accomplishment as a technical milestone. The entire Mars mission has cost the Indian Space Research Organisation a mere around Rs. 450 crore and took 15 months to put together.

Much of the Martian price tag is for ground stations and relay upgrades that will be used for other Isro projects. The actual satellite costs a mere $25 million ( Rs. 153 crore), says Pallav Bagla of Science magazine. Comparison: Nasa’s similar MAVEN Mars project will cost 10 times more and will take three times longer.

Isro is widely cited as an example of “frugal engineering” — the Indian ability to produce high-end technology at eye-poppingly low costs. A US state department scientific adviser once said that Isro had reduced satellite assembly costs to a tenth of Nasa’s.

Isro’s accomplishments are remarkable given its tiny budget: $700 million (Rs. 4,270 crore) in 2012-13. Despite a space programme whose financial base is the ninth largest, India is generally rated the world’s number six space power.

Of this, only 7% is allotted for planetary exploration. Isro’s prime directive has and continues to be the finding of technical means to support socio-economic goals such as education, medicine, water and disaster management.

2013 Mars mission: A space odyssey worth applauding

Isro also defrays government support through a commercial arm, Antrix. Through the sale of satellite imagery, satellite launches and so on, Antrix earned a pre-tax Rs. 2 billion in 2010 alone.

Isro officials privately say they have utilitarian reasons for symbolically exciting projects like the Mars mission: it helps them “recruit engineering talent” despite the agency’s government salary structure.

Take a poll:

Euroconsult, the world’s leading space consultancy firm, said the United States spent $43 billion (Rs 262,300 crore)in space in 2011, more than 60% of the global total.

China officially has a space budget of only $500 million (Rs. 3,050 crore), a figure widely disbelieved. Euroconsult says China’s budget is closer to $1.3 billion (Rs. 7,930 crore). And though Beijing has a lead over New Delhi when it comes to astronauts, its only Mars mission, the Yinghuo 1, used a Russian rocket, a Kazakh launchpad and never left Earth orbit.

Video: India’s Mars mission 'Mangalyaan' lifts off



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