Top of the world: Isro’s Mangalyaan triumph has silenced the Mars critics
For the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), Mangalyaan was a bold gamble that paid off. When it was launched in 2013, along with accolades, it had also received severe criticism from skeptics and social scientists. Today their voices drown in the triumph of its maiden journey.
The most striking part of the success of this Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was that India broke into the big league with its first ever attempt which even the US or Russia couldn’t do. Second, it came at a much cheaper price of $74 million when others spent a few hundred. Today, Isro became the fourth space agency after Nasa, the Russian space programme and the European Space Agency (ESA) to have joined the elite Mars club. And India is the first Asian country to have done it.
Looking back more than a year ago, the situation was not this rosy. Certainly there were many supporting voices for this grandiose plan, even when ISRO was still defaulting on its promise of a launch vehicle called the GSLV, that could send bigger payloads into space. Many thought that it was a misplaced idea of symbolism that could fail.The strongest critic of the mars mission was none other than the former head of Isro, G Madhavan Nair. “It would be a national waste,” he had told Science magazine, following the announcement of the mission by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his independence day speech in 2012. He termed it ”a half-baked, half-cooked mission being attempted in undue haste with misplaced objectives.”
According to him, the highly elliptical orbit planned for Mangalyaan would keep the mission vehicle away from the planet most of the time and that its payload was too small to study Mars. Nair had said instead of a Mars mission, Isro should have focussed on GSLV, which could have helped a stronger mission and augmented India’s future space efforts. Many others also thought that the payload was too small for an ambitious and expensive mission such as Mangalyaan and that ISRO should have waited for the GSLV. There were also criticisms that the mission was launched in haste to cover up for its GSLV-failure.
D Raghunandan, secretary of the the Delhi Science Forum had called the mission “a highly suboptimal mission with limited scientific objectives.” He also said that that ISRO should have waited for the GSLV.
In an interview to the Mathrubhumi (Malayalam) TV channel, Nair had repeated that there was undue haste in launching the mission and and that it wouldn’t “yield much returns”. He had said that many of the data that the mission could capture was easily available on the Nasa website.
However, the possibility of a success of Mangalyaan made Nair eat his words. Four days ago, he told IBTimes: “Whatever criticism I had was before the launch. Since the mission has already been launched, we all have to look forward to it now. From what I have understood of the steps taken by scientists at Isro, it should succeed and it will be a major milestone for us.”
On his point that the data could have been easily obtained from Nasa, Nair sang a different tune this time: “It is true that Nasa has much more advanced technology and has managed to collect a lot of information from Mars over several years. Nasa has already confirmed the presence of methane and even the composition of the atmosphere on Mars. We cannot match Nasa’s mission on the basis of technical ability at this moment.So, it would be wrong to compare the Indian Mars Mission with Nasa’s mission. But that said, Nasa will not share all its information readily with anyone. So it is important that we have our own database, and the Mars mission could be the first step towards that.”
So, the triumphalism of Mangalyaan had its first victim in Nair while others, including economist Jean Dreze, who called the mission “Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”, became invisible. This is how success trumps criticism.
The beauty of the Mars mission was that many who knew space science and Isro were skeptical and thought that the agency showed undue haste in launching it. Most of them thought that it would fail at some point or the other. The least they would have expected was the final entry into the Martian orbit. Isro has done remarkably well so far and has silenced its critics. The point to be noted is that India has shown its capability in reaching the Mars like nobody else has done.
But what also needs to be noted is that the mission went with a small payload. Isro maintains that there was no need for a bigger payload because that’s all that was required for exploration. On the cost angle, the space agency creatively argues that the money spent was only Rs 4 per capita.
After this triumphalism and symbolism, the ISRO will have to prove the utility of the mission. The criticism that the mission with an elliptical orbit and a small payload was sub-optical with limited scientific objectives will still until the space agency proves its critics wrong.
But for the time being, India is on top of the world and the Indian space scientists can rejoice.