Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Mars Versus Malnutrition - The False Debate Resumes

It's been my cynical observation that nothing causes an outpouring of concern for India's poor and starving millions like a space mission (or in an earlier age, a nuclear test). [And by the way, this isn't strictly a guns-versus-butter argument, because external critics of India's defence spending are largely silent when their countries' arms industries are the beneficiaries.]

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), popularly known as Mangalyaan (Sanskrit/Hindi for Mars craft), was appropriately launched on a Wednesday (which is Mangalvaar, or "Mars-day", in the Indian calendar). 

Whether MOM launched a space probe or not, it certainly launched a barrage of criticism from various quarters, both Indian and foreign. The refrain was familiar. A country with so many poor people/people without toilets/starving children (take your pick) shouldn't be wasting money on space.

It's a different matter that the cessation of funding for space research isn't going to end poverty, and in fact, might cause it to drag on longer. The argument in favour of space research has been very effectively made by Dr Ernst Stuhlinger in his letter to a nun.

In fact, the "poor people" argument is ironically the most potent in favour of India's space program. The 1999 cyclone that hit India, like typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines this week, killed 10,000 people. But the cyclone Phailin, which hit India last month, only claimed 10 lives. The difference between 1999 and 2013 was that three Indian satellites - INSAT-3A, INSAT-3D and KALPANA - provided early warning and real-time monitoring of the storm, enabling the evacuation of over a million people out of harm's way. All three satellites were developed and launched indigenously, at a cost far below comparable services that could have been purchased from abroad. Critics should talk to the "poor people" who were saved about the benefit of the Indian space program.

In the 1960s, about 10-15% of the US population was considered "poor". Should the US have abandoned its man-on-the-moon mission until there were no more poor? Should the US even now refrain from spending money on probes like the Mars rover Curiosity until the American people enjoy universal health care?

Some of the posturing is so transparent, the insecurities of the author/editors shine through. India Mars Mission to Launch Amidst Overwhelming Poverty, reads the Las Vegas Guardian's shrill headline.

Indian critics are not to be left behind. Social activist Harsh Mander thought the Mars mission showed "a remarkable indifference to the dignity of the poor".

Some Indians were more specific in their criticism of this particular mission rather than with the idea of India's space efforts in general. One blogger believes the mission is a waste of resources because it will bring back no new data of value.

Even critics like him miss the point entirely.

To be blunt, the objective of the Mars Orbiter Mission is not to study Mars or to bring back useful data about the red planet! It has had several other objectives. Even if the orbiter dies after a single orbit of Mars, it would have achieved the following:

Prestige: It is undeniable that people around the world are now looking at India with new-found respect. If India succeeds where China and Japan have failed, it will be a significant achievement in the eyes of the world. The stage-wise approach of raising the craft's orbit in increments before breaking free of the earth's gravity, is an example of the Indian ability to improvise ("jugaad") in the face of constraints (namely the lack of a more powerful rocket like the GSLV).

The bulk of the complex mission still lies ahead, but on paper at least, the plan seems simultaneously ingenious and workable

Inspiration: Countless numbers of young Indians have been energised by the mission. The glamour of being a space scientist is already inspiring large numbers of students to opt for the hard sciences - the study of Mathematics, Physics and Aerospace Engineering. Engineering enrolments are likely to see a boost in the years to come.

Cyberspace - another frontier conquered by ISRO

For a government-owned entity, ISRO has surprised watchers not only with its frugality but also with its transparency. Every stage of the mission's progress was reported on social media, and an eager band of followers (over 200,000 strong) hung on to every word, staying up till the wee hours and posting encouraging messages.

Marketing: India has subtly advertised to the world that (1) its commercial launch capabilities are extremely economical, (2) its workhorse rocket, the PSLV, is highly reliable, and (3) its mission control specialists are skilled, experienced and capable of tackling problems that arise during a mission. A lot more business should flow ISRO's way in the months ahead.

Skills and Employment: As a wag put it, India's investment of $75 million on this mission has not been stuffed in the form of banknotes into the rocket and sent off into space. It has been spent in India, providing employment and experience to thousands of professionals, including those in ancillary industries such as Walchandnagar Industries Limited, which precision-manufactured the parts of the rocket and orbiter. It's an investment that will provide continuing returns.

In short, I think critics should shut up and get with the (space) program.

Update 16/11/2013: A very clear explanation of what MOM will and will not achieve can be heard in this 10-minute clip of an interview with D Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum.

Update 24/09/2014: MOM has reached Mars and entered orbit around the planet after almost 10 months in space.
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