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India launches 101st space mission, and looks to Mars

The mission will be carried out without international help, highlighting the growth and ambition of India's home-grown space program, which plans to launch a mission to Mars.

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Skeptics question not only the tough deadline, but whether India should be spending almost $90 million on a scientific mission that comes amid economic slowdown in India and after the US has already undertaken a similar mission.

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Not everyone has been critical, however. “India is a country which works on different levels,” says Krishan Lal, president of the Indian National Science Academy. “On the one hand, we have a space mission, on the other hand a large number of bullock carts. You can’t, say, remove all the bullock carts, then move into space. You have to move forward in all directions.”            

No space race

Officials have defended their program: ISRO chief Radhakrishnan pointed out that of this year’s budget, 55 percent was allocated to space applications like communication, navigation, and remote sensing, 36 percent to launch vehicles and just 9 percent to science and exploration missions including Chandrayan 2 and the Mars orbiter.

Many observers agree that prestige is partly behind the Mars mission (the announcement was made when it became clear that the second Moon mission would not keep its 2013 date and even took the scientific community by surprise). But they also say there is little evidence India is engaged in a real space race. China’s space exploration program is far ahead of India’s, especially in manned spaceflight.

“India’s space program will be driven by its budgets, not by a race with competitors,” said Dinshaw Mistry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati specializing in nuclear, missile, and space technology, in an e-mail. The Mars mission is “relatively cheap,” he notes, “costing no more than launching a satellite, while a manned mission is an order of magnitude more expensive and far more risky.”

Less controversial has been ISRO’s entry into the multibillion dollar international commercial launch market via Antrix, its commercial arm. India has launched 29 foreign satellites during the past decade, including the simultaneous launch of the French SPOT 6 and a Japanese microsatellite in September.

But “India has barely begun to scratch the surface” of the market, says Susmita Mohanty, founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up.

ISRO is still perfecting its Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle,which is meant for launching telecommunications satellites, but it has a robust Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle for launching earth observation satellites, Dr. Mohanty notes. Theoretically ISRO is capable of building and launching five to six Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles a year but for the past few years, has launched about two a year, she says, “most likely because our national priorities precede any commercial intent.”

To grab a greater chunk of the market, says Mohanty, who has previously worked in the aerospace industry in US and Europe, ISRO would have to “develop a more international outlook” and privatize routine rocket manufacturing.

There are signs that this is already happening. At the recent close of Bangalore's Space Expo, Radhakrishnan said that ISRO plans to encourage private participation so that it can focus on research and development. He suggested that what India needs is a consortium of big space contracting companies similar to the US. 

“We can learn from Europe and America though their situation is different,” he said. 

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