How India beat China to Mars (for less than the cost of a Hollywood movie)

India brought its spacecraft Mangalyaan into Mars' orbit today, the first Asian nation to do so. Its mission cost less than the budget for "Gravity," a 2013 Hollywood blockbuster, thanks in part to a lighter craft that kept down fuel costs.

Aijaz Rahi/AP
Indian Space Research Organisation scientists and officials cheer as they celebrate the success of Mars Orbiter Mission at their Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network complex in Bangalore, India, Sept. 24, 2014. India triumphed in its first interplanetary mission, placing a satellite into orbit around Mars.

When India's spacecraft Mangalyaan entered the orbit of Mars on Wednesday morning, the country made history three times over.

It became the first to reach the planet on its initial attempt; the first Asian country to reach the Red Planet; and it accomplished this feat with the least amount of money.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the low-cost $74 million orbiter, pointing out that it cost less than the budget of the $100 million Hollywood blockbuster "Gravity." It is also a fraction of the $671 million cost of US space agency NASA's Mars orbiter, a more technically complex spacecraft which also reached the planet this week. 

The modest cost has been hailed by the Indian press. But it raises questions about how the space agency achieved it, and whether its model is replicable.

"We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and human imagination," said Mr. Modi, who watched the operation at the Indian Space Research Organization's mission control in Bangalore.

Schoolchildren in India came to classes early to watch the operation, and scientists at mission control burst into joyous applause after receiving word that the mission was successful. 

"We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible," said Modi, who travels to New York to address the United Nations later this week.

Tens of millions of people across the country followed the progress of the craft on live television. There were special news bulletins on the mission. Local newspapers reported that many Indians offered special prayers at temples for the mission's success. 

India joins elite club – on the cheap 

India now joins the United States, Russia, and the European space agency in successfully sending probes to orbit or land on Mars. Apart from India, none managed to succeed on their first attempt. Of the 51 missions attempted so far, only 21 had succeeded. The odds were loaded against India, "but we have prevailed," declared Modi.

One big question is how India managed to get it done so cheaply. 

"We have not compromised; we have done it in two years and ground testing has helped," K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO told Indian TV news channel NDTV. ISRO conducted fewer ground tests – which are time consuming and expensive. 

Scientists also kept costs down by using smaller rockets and keeping the weight of the spacecraft low, requiring less fuel. The orbiter – roughly the size of a smart car – has a payload of just 33 pounds. The use of previously purchased technologies, such as an engine bought from France in the 1970s, also helped bring down costs.

Another factor are comparatively low salaries for Indian engineers and managers: A mid-level official at ISRO draws a salary of about $1,600 USD a month, lowering the total program costs. 

Why India is aiming for Mars

India's Mars mission aims to monitor the planet for traces of life and scan its atmosphere for methane, a chemical strongly tied to life on planet Earth.  Five scientific instruments on the spacecraft are gathering data.

Some in India have questioned the wisdom of investing in a space program in a country where hunger and poverty is widespread. Others say the Mars mission is significant in building an advanced technological base and is providing high-tech jobs for scientists.

It is one giant leap for India," Ajey Lele, a Delhi-based defense expert and author of “Mission Mars: India’s Quest for the Red Planet" wrote in a Wall Street Journal column. “India could develop a strategy for deep space that offers scientific, commercial and strategic benefits.” 

Asian space race?

The successful mission is also a symbolic coup over China, which has its own ambitious space program. Its own Mars orbiter failed to leave Earth's orbit in a 2011 attempt. Japan's attempt to orbit Mars also failed.

While India has warm ties with Japan, its relationship with China is frostier. After his recent visit to India, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked the People's Liberation Army to be ready to win a regional war, a statement which went down badly in India. The two sides fought a brief war in 1962 at a still-disputed border. 

Asked by a TV reporter whether the mission will create a space race with China, Mr. Radhakrishnan said that India was not engaged in competition with any other nation. "First and foremost, what we are trying to do is reach there," said Radhakrishnan. “We are not in any race with anyone.”

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