There are divisions over whether ambitious science missions like the Mars project are worth the investment by a country where large sections do not have basic amenities.

Even as top ministers sparred with each other over there not being enough toilets for the country, India is making an open attempt to beat its Asian rival, China, in reaching distant Mars riding on the Mars Orbiter Mission.

The irony cannot be missed. Looking at the country’s state of abject poverty, malnutrition and underdevelopment, some have questioned the profligacy of India heading to the Red Planet on a mission that costs Rs.450 crore.

As questions are being asked, is India’s mission to Mars a giant leap or tiny step?

The criticism

Jean Drèze, a development economist, famously said, “I don’t understand the importance of India sending a space mission to Mars when half of its children are undernourished and half of all Indian families have no access to sanitation.” Others who believe in pushing the frontier and going where no Asian nation has ever gone before, like Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Bangalore, say “the Mars mission is a historical necessity, since after having helped find water on the moon, looking for signatures of life on Mars is a natural progression.”

Later this month, India will send a 1,350-kg unmanned satellite aptly called “Mangalyaan” which means “Mars craft” made by a team of 500 scientists from ISRO in a record 15 months, the shortest time frame for any of the over 100 space missions India has ever undertaken.

In a manner that has similarities with the clarion call given by John F. Kennedy in 1961 that Americans will land on the moon, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his Independence Day speech on August 15, 2012, described the Mangalyaan mission as a “huge step for us,” proclaiming that “our craft will soon go to Mars and collect important scientific information.”

The modest mission ISRO acknowledges is more of a “technology demonstrator” but the Rs.150-crore spacecraft made in India by Indians and to be launched from Indian soil using an Indian rocket will also carry five homemade scientific instruments which will study the thin Martian atmosphere looking for signatures of life.

In this 100-metre dash to meet the deadline for the November launch, the risks are high. Since 1960, about 45 missions to Mars have been launched with a third having ended in disaster and no single nation succeeding in its maiden venture.

Calling it “fantastic,” NASA chief General Charles Bolden, talking to NDTV endorsed India’s maiden mission to Mars saying, “It’s always exciting to have as many countries as possible participating in exploration efforts, particularly Mars … a place that we don't know a lot about. We are providing support through communications, data transmission. We are in partnership.”

The rush to beat the 2013 deadline has been both a geopolitical and planetary necessity. Many viewed the Prime Minister’s announcement as the start of an Asian space race, since this could well be a daring 100-metre dash in India’s marathon to reach the Red Planet, especially when in November 2011, the maiden Chinese orbiter to Mars called Yinghuo-1 piggybacked on the Russian satellite Phobos Grunt, ended in disaster after it failed to be boosted into space. This failure now gave India an opportunity to possibly march ahead of not only China but even Japan, which had made an unsuccessful attempt in 1998. In most other aspects of space fairing China has already beaten India, so here was an opportunity for the elephant to march ahead of the dragon. Dr. Radhakrishnan discounts this view saying, “We are not racing with anyone” but accepts that “boosting national pride” is a big driver for such bold and ambitious missions. The more rational reason given for “fast-tracking” this mission is that 2013 offered an opportune launch window to go to Mars since planetary juxtapositions permit such attempts once every 26 months.

So later this month, even as some 600 million people sit under the sky for their ablutions they could possibly catch a glimpse of India’s smaller rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, begin what would be India’s long march of sending a robot some 400 million kilometres away to study Mars in what is being considered the cheapest interplanetary mission ever.

Science and cyclones

To some diehard critics of the Indian Mars mission, the recent Phailin cyclone in Odisha should be an eye-opener, where the loss of life was a mere 44. In comparison, about 10,000 people lost their lives in the supercyclone of 1999 and 3,00,000 people died in the Sunderbans and Bangladesh in the Bhola Cyclone of 1970. The crucial difference now is that India today had as many as half-a-dozen satellites, all made by ISRO, keeping a constant vigil on the cyclone as it roared over the Bay of Bengal, while the string of Doppler Radars that line the coast along the Bay of Bengal also helped. None of this cutting-edge capability would have been possible had the government heeded the advice of the critics who consider India’s investment in space a waste of resources. According to ISRO, for every rupee spent the agency has given back more than two in return. At the same time, how do you put a price on the over 10,000 lives saved in Odisha during Phailin.

So who knows? This small step by India could well turn out to be one giant leap for mankind in answering that big question: are we alone in the universe?

(Pallava Bagla is author of the book, Destination Moon — India’s Quest for the Moon, Mars and Beyond. E-mail: pallava.bagla@gmail.com)

More In: Comment | Opinion