India's giant-leap mission to Mars

India's launch on Tuesday of its first spacecraft to Mars might seem like a waste for a country so poor. Yet the mission speaks well of India's earthly concerns and universal dreams.

Guards stand in front of India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25), carrying the Mars orbiter, before its Nov. 5 launch at Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota.

When India built its first space satellite in the 1970s, the high-tech device had to be tested in an open field with no metal interference. It got there in a very low-tech way – atop a cart made of wood pulled by a farmer’s bull.

On Tuesday, a country that is still simultaneously rich and poor launched its first spacecraft bound for Mars. If all goes well, the probe will be circling the Red Planet in about 300 days, beaming back data to supplement the work of two rovers and two orbiters already sent there by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency.

On many counts, India still has plenty of earthly concerns to argue against a $72 million mission to Mars. With a third of the world’s poor, it has 400 million people without electricity. About 40 percent of its children are malnourished. Searching a distant planet for traces of life and other scientific discoveries may seem like a lopsided priority.

Yet India is full of such contradictions. It has more cellphones than toilets. It has some of the world’s best scientists and yet one of the lowest literacy rates. Despite having the world’s 10th largest economy, its leaders know India must venture into new frontiers such as space to lift people from poverty.

“If we can’t dare to dream big it would leave us as hewers of wood and drawers of water!” said one government official to science journalist Pallava Bagla, author of the book “Destination Moon.”

The intellectual curiosity that drives India’s space exploration has also enabled it to launch orbital satellites that allow more accurate weather forecasts, better crop predictions, and improved communications. Within the same breath, the head of the Indian Space Research Organization, K. Radhakrishnan, can say that the space program brings solutions to the problems of society and an understanding of humanity’s place in the universe.

While skeptics of India’s space spending say it is driven mainly by competition with China and other Asian powers, Mr. Radhakrishnan says, “We are in a race with ourselves. We need to excel, we need to improve, and we need to bring new services.”

Out of its concerns about dealing with poverty, India has become a model of frugality in developing new space technology. The space budget is $1 billion compared with NASA’s $17 billion. And it claims the Mars mission is the cheapest interplanetary mission ever. Instead of using a giant rocket to send the spacecraft out of Earth’s orbit, India will let the 3,000-pound orbiter use gravitational forces to sling-shot itself on a 422-million-mile journey. Indians are known for their “jugaad” way of designing inexpensive, innovative solutions.

For half a century, Americans have employed the idiom, “If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we (do less earthly tasks).” With this latest launch, India has now created its own metaphor for a can-do spirit. If the orbiter helps solve some mysteries of Mars, then India might be far along in creating prosperity for its poor.

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