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Our footsteps on the moon

Money alone is not the measure of the worthiness of the cost of exploring space. Priyamvada Natarajan writes.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2013 21:23 IST

In August 2012, marking the 65th anniversary of Independence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced plans to send an unmanned scientific, space mission to Mars this year. And on January 6, the first model of this probe - Mangalyaan - was unveiled at the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata. We now have a bold, new vision for space exploration.

With the perfect landing of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa's) Rover Curiosity on Mars on August 6, 2012, we entered a new kind of space age and it might transform our understanding of our place in the cosmos. Nasa is pursuing a robust multi-year MARS programme in order to lay the foundation for a manned mission in the 2030s.

K Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), announced 58 satellite and launch vehicle missions over the next five years. In the last five-year plan period (2007-2012), India has ramped up to 29 space missions, more than doubling those in the earlier five-year plans. He announced a strong move to increase the participation of Indian industries and partnership with research institutions in these missions.

With these two announcements, it is clear that India's ambitions have moved beyond commercial launching to claiming a place at the forefront of space exploration. Cooperating with private investors as well as industry, we could leap into the new space race closely behind the US.

But Singh's announcement came under sharp criticism in the British and American media. In the wake of India's emergence as an economic power and these ambitions, questions have been raised as to whether we ought to be recipients of international aid anymore. Can India justify the cost of sending a probe to Mars when nearly 42% of its children under the age of five are moderate to severely underweight and 350 million live in poverty? But first, let's look at the cost of this Indian space dream: it is Rs. 4,500 crore ($82 million), a mere 13% of the government's budgeted FY 2012-2013 allocation for one scheme - the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). So even if we pumped the money meant for space research into poverty alleviation programmes, it is unlikely to make a dent.

The Mars mission announced by Singh is expected to launch in November 2013 with a 15 kg scientific payload. The mission, to study the Martian atmosphere will be launched from our spaceport Sriharikota, by a version of Isro's staple rocket (PSLV). The goal is to study the climate, geology, origin and sustainability of life on the planet. If this mission succeeds, India would become the only Asian country to send a mission to Mars. Earlier attempts by Japan and China have failed.

China has been pacing itself and building up its space prowess incrementally. Their first successful human spaceflight was in 2003, spacewalk in 2008 and first space docking in 2011. Last December, Beijing unveiled its ambitious five-year plan for exploration that includes collecting lunar samples and launching a space laboratory.

This might well be the Sputnik moment for India, a moment to inspire its young and talented to pursue careers in science and technology. If the Sputnik effect on the growth of science and technology in the US is anything to go by, this is what we need to get on track to transform India into a knowledge power - our current aspiration.

Truth be told, the benefits of space exploration cannot be easily calculated, as there are both tangible and intangible benefits. Besides, the power of wonder is not to be underestimated. National pride and prestige aside, there will be rich returns for the government's current investment in space exploration, as it will spur high-tech industry and innovation. If the US example is anything to go by, space exploration has and will continue to lead to path-breaking technologies and provide an eight-fold return on investment.

A prime example is the global positioning satellite (GPS) technology - 43 countries now have their own communication satellites and scores more benefit from GPS satellites that provide important services - a direct outcome of space science research.

Money alone is not the measure of the worthiness of the cost of exploring space - is there a price to inspiration, creativity and the human urge to discover if we are alone? And why should an Indian child not dream about leaving her footsteps on the moon when she grows up?

Priyamvada Natarajan is professor, departments of astronomy and physics, Yale University

The views expressed by the author are personal