Mars, the mysterious red planet has ignited the fertile imagination of layman and literary luminaries, who dwelt on extra-terrestrial life, alike for centuries.
Such was the mystique surrounding Mars that it instilled a sense of fear in human mind since ancient times when gazers of the celestial sphere noticed that bright red dot in the dark sky and believed it to be the carrier of war, pestilence and destruction.
Years later, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed some channels on Martian landscape which inspired American astronomy specialist Percival Lowell’s famous theory of “intelligent life having dug those artificial canals to channelize water.” These speculations also motivated authors like H.G. Wells to script immortal science fiction like “The War of the Worlds.” Even in modern times when mankind has partially pierced the mystery behind Mars, an ambitious project of a Dutch NGO, “Mars One,” to establish human colony on Mars has attracted enthusiasts in thousands. That India would become an integral part of this long-standing human effort to unravel the secrets of Mars and perhaps set up base there was a foregone conclusion given the country’s unique background in science and technology.
Over the past several millennia, Indian civilization has consistently nurtured scientific values. In fact, India has for ages been the fountainhead of scientific advancement and foundational research work, including some pioneering discoveries in the field of mathematics and astronomy. The country’s space research has been inspired by Aryabhatta, the great mathematician who influenced the course of space science through his numerical discoveries as early as in the 5th century. Such was the impact of his treatise that even the Arab world benefited from his contribution. In Arabic science he is popularly referred to as Arjehir as his legendary work Aryabbatiya — translated into Arabic under the title Zij-Al-Arjabhar — finds mention in the ancient composition of several West Asian mathematical and astronomical scholars.
India’s maiden interplanetary odyssey to Mars, launched on Nov. 5, has already catapulted the country into an elite club despite the controversies surrounding it.
If the robotic orbiter “Mangalayan” completes its mission successfully, the exclusive global space community comprising of the US, Russia and the European Space Agency — who have had successful trysts with Mars previously — will have an emerging Asian giant rubbing shoulder with them. Japan and China have failed to achieve success from similar efforts. Significantly, this also marks the 50th anniversary of India’s sending of a rocket into outer space for the first time. Most importantly, this exercise will surely showcase the South Asian giant as a successful low-cost player capable of delivering results in complicated space missions at bargain-basement price.
The shoestring Mars mission budget of $73 million can undoubtedly pose a great challenge to the well-settled existing players in the high-cost business of space exploration. One must also take into account the fact that the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is comparatively less funded than organizations like NASA of the United States, which spends $17.7 billion annually compared to ISRO’s paltry $1 billion. If we add the amazing fact of ISRO being forced to use an alternative launch vehicle because the designated GSLV rocket was under-performing, the achievement doubtlessly attains greater glory.
Indeed it has been an incredible journey for Indian space scientists, having operated for decades a creative, frugal yet one of the most advanced space program anywhere on the globe. The scientific fraternity were justifiably more focused on achieving utilitarian goals throughout than running after publicity by accomplishing some headline-grabbing feats. Thanks to their tireless efforts that India today can not only build and operate indigenous satellites — used for weather forecast, land mapping and communication — but also capable of recovering them from space. ISRO’s ability to improvise can help the country secure lucrative global commercial-satellite launch contracts. Saudi Arabia, for example, can take advantage of India’s expertise in launching spacecraft and satellites given the fact that King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST) had used the facilities at Baikonur space station in Kazakhstan to lift 12 satellites into space. The Kingdom is already investing heavily on improving the country’s nascent yet ambitious space program and exploiting India’s potential can discourage profligacy and encourage greater bilateral cooperation in the field of science and technology simultaneously. New Delhi does play a vital role in space-diplomacy and has not shied away from sharing its space experience with other countries or work in tandem to co-invent cutting edge technologies.
Even foreign agencies specialized in space science might be tempted to outsource certain aspects of their space mission to India in order to rationalize burgeoning budgets. However, to harness the full potential of ISRO, the Indian government needs to overhaul the country’s space policy. It is a must to enable private players and foreign governments exploit ISRO’s impressive portfolio of space products and services. Let us not forget that the Indian private sector needs to be co-opted if India seriously seeks to take advantage of the approximately $304 billion global space economy. At the end of the day, the prospective success of a cheap Mars voyage, with a latent potential of revolutionizing space economics, will be another feather in ISRO’s cap after successfully reaping the fruits of space technology for social benefits.
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This article appeared at Arab News.