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India’s Martian Chronicles

NEW DELHI – The news that the Mars orbiter spacecraft Mangalyaan, launched by India on November 5, has left the Earth’s orbit, traversed the moon, and is on course for its ultimate destination, 400 million kilometers (249 million miles) away, brought early holiday cheer to Indians. Space missions have become a matter of pride for India, which is already one of the top countries in terms of rocket and satellite technology.

Mangalyaan, India’s first inter-planetary satellite, was purpose-built for the Mars mission – and it was made entirely indigenously. Indian-educated scientists designed and fabricated it in barely 15 months – astonishingly fast for a country of chronic delays, where “Indian Standard Time” is a common joke. They also did so at a remarkably low cost, with the total bill coming in at under $73 million, or about a fifth of what the few other countries that have sought to explore Mars have spent. Indeed, while Indians often lament their country’s dysfunction, inadequate infrastructure, antiquated industrial processes, and uneven manufacturing record, it rose to the challenge and delivered.

But it is too early to celebrate. Five years ago, India’s lunar mission, called Chandrayaan, was the occasion for another national celebration. Though it was intended to explore the moon for two years, the spacecraft was declared lost after 312 days. While scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) believe that they gained valuable lessons from the experience, the partial failure of the Chandrayaan mission still haunts them.

Moreover, the challenge is even greater when it comes to Mars. It is a sobering fact that of a total of 51 Mars missions sent out by five countries, 30 ended badly. Among India’s Asian rivals, neither Japan, which launched a Mars orbiter in 2003, nor China, which followed suit in 2011, was able to complete its mission successfully.