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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to India's giant-leap mission to Mars
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today