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India's mission to Mars will stir our cynical, jaded spirit

India's voyage to Mars is about giving something your best shot, about reaching something unattainable and about stirring the spirit and boosting pride in a dispirited nation stuck in a cynical, divisive time. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Nov 07, 2013 00:59 IST

They were the three most famous words spoken in the history of adventure. Asked by a reporter why he was climbing Mount Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory replied: "Because it's there." It was 1924, and conquering the world's highest mountain was one of humanity's wildest dreams. In June that year, Mallory vanished, attempting to become the first man atop Everest. That conquest would take another 29 years later, but Mallory succeeded in making his country understand why he climbed.

Voyagers and adventurers - successful or not - to unexplored, formidable frontiers have always uncaged the human spirit, although, like Mallory, they often had to explain why. "If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it," said Mallory, "that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go."

In this age, when the universe appears to have shrunk to our smartphones and television sets, it is important to understand what it might mean for a poverty stricken, fractious country to fire off a little spacecraft across the void of space to the most familiar Earth-like world that we know: the quickest Mars mission to the launch pad and the cheapest journey ever, a sterling example of India's frugal engineering and last-minute capabilities.

The voyage - even the attempt - is a fine example of "daring mighty things", as a former US president once put it, rather than existing in the "gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat". Part of the risk is that you may not succeed, but it is the willingness to try that steels the spirit.

The prospect of failure is clearly not an obstacle for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), given that there is so much that can go wrong. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which blasted off atop a modest, jerry rigged PSLV rocket - the same vehicle used to launch satellites - from the space base of Sriharikota on Tuesday, is incredibly more difficult than the successful Indian shot at the moon five years ago.

Not only is Mars many times farther than the moon, it orbits the sun at a different rate than the Earth. So, launches must be perfectly timed when the two planets are aligned. Miss a launch window and the next alignment, called 'opposition', can take a year and a half, at least. Isro cannot aim the MOM at its target and shoot. Since both Mars and Earth move in varying ellipses around the sun, Isro has aimed the MOM at where Mars is now, but where it should be at end of the spacecraft's journey.

Unofficially called Mangalyaan, or Mars vehicle, the MOM isn't headed to our neighbour in a straight line. It is orbiting the Earth in ever larger ellipses - gathering momentum - until it can line itself up with the Red Planet's orbit and slingshot itself across.

Down the ages of humankind, Mars - a bright, red dot in the night sky - has occupied a special place as driver of imagination, place of disquiet and object of scientific scrutiny. More than a century ago, its 'canals' - now thought of as gigantic ravines gorged out by ancient ice sheets - were discovered, leading to intense speculation of life on Mars. There was always a dread that Martians would one day be among us, a fear brought alive artificially by a 1938 American radio broadcast called the War of the Worlds, which led millions to believe the Earth was under attack by many tentacled Martians.

The cynics have two arguments against a mission to Mars. One, others have done it. Indeed, the first probe reached Mars the year I was born, 1965, and there have been more than 40 attempts to fly by, orbit or land there. But about half never made it. Only the US, the former Soviet Union and the Europeans - collectively - have succeeded. Even the Japanese and Chinese failed. The Chinese orbiter, Yinghuo-1, crashed back to Earth last year while piggybacking on Phobos-Grunt, a doomed Russian mission. The Chinese failure is one reason for India's haste. To simply put a spacecraft in orbit around the most Earth-like planet we know is to gain a rare prestige, to be part of a mystique unmatched in contemporary space travel.

The second argument against being Mars-bound is this: Would a country as poor as India not be better off spending the money on something else? This is easily answered. The MOM will cost about $73 million dollars; that's less than half of what it costs Boeing to build a 787 Dreamliner, and, as former Isro chairman UR Rao pointed out after the launch, the bill is a fraction of the amount India spent on firecrackers this Diwali. The US' latest mission to Mars - launching barely two weeks later, after five years in the making - has a budget of $671 million, about nine times costlier than India's admittedly less sophisticated shot at Mars (both missions plan to collaborate on common objectives).

The MOM will conduct five scientific tests, including sniffing for methane - an indicator of life - but, really, the MOM is just too small and hastily put together for serious scientific study. Even if the MOM fails, there is much pride to be had in the fact that it's been just 15 months since Delhi cleared the journey.

The MOM just isn't about the money or the science.

India's voyage to Mars is about giving something your best shot, about reaching something unattainable and about stirring the spirit and boosting pride in a dispirited nation stuck in a cynical, divisive time, to urge it upward, forever upward. It is about, as Mallory said, "the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man"- about trying to get to Mars because it's there.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal

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