Photo: J. Gabas Esteban

A space race in the developing word: India’s latest mission causes controversy

On November 5, 2013, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched a rocket that is projected to reach Mars in September 2014. The object of the mission, called the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is to use a satellite to identify the geological source of methane that is present in the Martian atmosphere.

If India’s vessel, called Mangalyaan, successfully reaches Mars, it will be the fourth space program to achieve this feat, behind the Soviet Space Program, the U.S. Space Program (NASA), and the European Space Agency.

As the Indian government only announced the mission in 2010, the ISRO put together the project in a relatively short period of time. MOM cost just less than $75 million USD, inexpensive compared to the amount other space programs have spent on projects of this scale.

One of the reasons the ISRO was able to keep the cost of the project low was because of technological support from NASA. India is also using a less powerful rocket than could be used for the mission. The rocket will not enter the Martian orbit directly, but instead will orbit Earth before entering the trajectory that will cause it to arrive at Mars.


Rising criticism towards the mission

Despite the relatively low cost of the Mars Orbiter Mission, the project has received some criticism from factions in India that believe the mission is a waste of government funds.

These critics also contend that India should instead allocate to providing more resources for its common citizens. In a developing country like India, where millions of people do not have access to food, clean water, and electricity, certain social activists and economists argue that space exploration should not be given priority in the national budget.

Brinda Adige, director of an NGO called Global Concerns India, which works on women’s and children’s issues in a slum population near Bangalore, voiced her disappointment at the allocation of government funding saying, “So much of money that is being spent to send a rocket into outer space, when we know that here on Earth, in my country there are children dying every day because they have no food to eat…the priorities are certainly not looking at children, women, human beings who are in need of basic necessities,” PBS Newshour reported.


The 2013 Indian space program budget was about $1 billion. Jean Dreze, a leading developmental economist and professor at the University of Delhi, has criticized the mission as simply being another assertion of power by India to try to gain status as a “superpower” as opposed to a developing nation.

The Indian space program has received criticism of this kind from its beginning in 1963. ISRO has continually had to defend their project in terms of the beneficial application they can yield to the common Indian citizen.

The program has described its goals as to “support the developmental activities of the nation, and bring benefit to its society and its citizens,” through, among other methods, a satellite system that “provides operational service and supports inventory of land use/cover, vegetation/forests, water resources, urban areas, soils, coastal areas, etc.; monitoring the environment, [and] support to Disaster Management.”

The ISRO motto, as displayed boldly across their website is, “Space technology in the service of human kind.” ISRO has mostly been concerned with setting up satellite systems that are primarily used to obtain meteorological information. These satellites help people on the ground—like farmers, fisherman, and other agricultural professionals—by giving weather predictions. Their weather predictions have also helped in times of natural disaster, as they are used to evacuate civilians from dangerous areas preemptively.

MOM has less practical applications than any of ISRO’s previous ventures, and has therefore generated more opposition from the people who believe India should not be spending money on space exploration.

However, many Indians believe that investing in science and technology will benefit the country in the long run by increasing India’s power in the global economy. ISRO director Dr. Radhakrishnan told PBS in an interview in January 2014 that the Mars mission, while not having direct benefits to the common Indian person, is an investment in the economic growth of the country that will benefit all of its citizens.

Radhakrishnan said, “People are keeping awake at night to see how the Mars orbiter operations are progressing. So if you can transform so many young minds…to take up a career in science, it is a big transformation for the country, for the future.”

A space race in the developing world

Politicians from across parties have voiced support of the mission. Both Manmohan Singh the current prime minister, belonging to the Indian National Congress party, and Nanendra Modi a candidate for prime minister in the upcoming general election, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata party, have expressed excitement regarding the Mars mission, claiming that this advancement in science innovation will strengthen India’s position in the world.

The Mars mission also seems to be the next step in India’s ongoing space race with China, although politicians are careful not to explicitly state as such. China launched a mission to Mars in 2011, which failed after the loss of an interplanetary probe.

The Indian media has spoken of the underlying political implications of India’s relationship with China, and how the Indian space program is creating competition in the developing world. Reporters have likened this competition to a 21st century version of the earlier space race between the U.S. and the USSR.

With countries like Nigeria also launching their own space programs, India has competition from all sides of the developing world if it wants to be a leader in science and technology innovation.

However, Dr.Radhakrishnan denies China’s failed mission as being any motivation for India to decide to go to Mars, saying, “Each country has their own priorities, their own vision for the space program. India has its vision, China has its vision, we are pursuing our vision.”

It remains to be seen in the coming years, if the Mars Orbiter Mission will indirectly bring prosperity to India. Currently, the rocket is being monitored by from the Spacecraft Control Centre at ISROTelemetry, Tracking and Command Network in Bangalore, India. If everything continues according to plan, it will reach Mars before the end of 2014.

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