India Blasts Off to Mars for Only $73 Million

BXP137687sLast week on Tuesday, India launched its first Mars mission for the relatively-low cost of $73 million. The budget for the Mangalyaan (Hindi for “Mars craft”) is being hailed as a potential “game changer” of space exploration economics. S. Arunan, Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Mission Project Director as reportedly said, “this is less than one-tenth of what the US has spent on their Mars mission Maven.” The Indian program’s apparent cost efficiency may be partially explained by the disparity in wages relative to other countries; however, Arunan’s comparison isn’t fair because the Indian mission is different from its more expensive counterparts for at least three reasons:

  1. The Mangalyaan satellite has limited capabilities
  2. Reverse engineering existing technology reduced the need for R&D spending on rocket systems
  3. Mission success was jeopardized through cuts in budget and compromises in quality

First, the capabilities of India’s mission to Mars were extremely limited. According to the Mr. Radhakrishnan, the Chairman of the ISRO, the mission is primarily a “technology demonstration.” To achieve this objective, India didn’t need to build and equip state of the art satellites with expensive instruments. In fact, the Mangalyaan is only designed to perform five main experiments and stay in orbit around Mars for four months. In comparison, the US Mars mission Maven “will provide first-of-its-kind measurements and address key questions about Mars climate and habitability and improve understanding of dynamic processes in the upper Martian atmosphere and ionosphere.”

Second, according to Radhakrishnan, India inherited its rocket technology from France in 1970. Rather than spending great sums on research and development, India simply reverse-engineered this technology and simply improved it.

Third, quality control for the Mangalyaan mission wasn’t a priority and the program accepted a much higher risk of failure. Mr. Radhakrishnan claimed that India operates on a budget, stating that “The Russians look for robustness and the Americans go after optimization.” However, even the Indian mission’s goal isn’t just to stay within budget. Radhakrishnan further explained that his team kept the “number of [ground] tests small but wrung out the best out of each.” NASA also “wrings” out the best from each ground test, but it also conducts significantly more ground tests. Radhakrishnan added that for engineers on his team “18-hour days are common. During the launch period, many of our scientists were working 20 hour-days. Being time effective makes us cost effective.” These working conditions likely make scientists more error prone and there definitely exists a trade-off between quality and “cost effectiveness.”

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