Running the space marathon

As India aims to go back to the moon and send people into space, we should become comfortable when ISRO spends more, delivers results and equips the nation for brave new worlds.

India‘s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully completed its first course correction last week and is speeding away on its 10-month-long journey to the red planet. This is an opportune time to dispel myths and get a better perspective on the Indian space programme. Space exploration is an expensive but necessary venture, and primitive public narratives are resulting in lack of appreciation for real costs. As India aims to go back to the moon and send people into space, we should become comfortable when the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) spends more, delivers results and equips the nation for brave new worlds.

Perhaps for the first time for India, the space-versus-poverty debate in popular national and international discourse has shifted noticeably in favour of space.

Space exploration can never escape the limelight, unlike other fields of research, with both successes and failures being inevitably public. The “is it worth it?” question resurfaces like clockwork. Those convinced about the virtues of space exploration should not become complacent and think that the matter has been permanently settled in the country. The only way to do this is by encouraging Isro to foster a culture of openness, engage the public a lot more, and expand the civilian spin-offs of space exploration.

Much has been made of India’s incredibly thrifty mission to mars costing the exchequer a mere $75 million (Rs 450 crore). But this is an underestimate, and the real cost of the mission may be double the number, if not more. The true economic cost of the Mars mission is the sum of its opportunity costs and its accounting costs. Let us leave aside opportunity costs for now, since they are difficult to compute. The accounting costs include money explicitly directed towards the programme, as well as the cost of various Isro resources whose time and efforts are used for the mission. For instance, salaries of Isro engineers, scientists and top officials are not covered under the Rs 450 crore number – nor is the use of Isro’s advanced infrastructure facilities such as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram or the autonomous Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad.

A reading of Isro’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. Isro’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one.

Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by Isro’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (Isro’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of Isro, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission.

Now, this is not to say that all these 11 other heads of expenditure have spent all their funds only on this programme. However, there is insufficient information in the public domain to estimate exactly how much Isro spent on the Mars mission. The outcome budget tells us that the expense is a lot more than Rs 450 crore.

It is unfortunate that we make a virtue of low-cost successes in India rather than aiming for the best. An underestimation of expenses is inevitable in such a culture. This is unnecessary to sell the Mars mission to the Indian public. Apart from providing technological support to India’s development and security needs, the space programme is a source of inspiration for scientific curiosity like no other. This is necessary for any growing nation to embrace a knowledge economy. While we may have plenty of challenges to address down on Earth, we have to keep looking up at the stars in order to pull ourselves up. There are no short cuts in the pursuit of excellence and no brownie points for cutting costs illegitimately.

With China making the first soft landing on the moon in 37 years and India planning the same in the next two years, it is easy to get lost in lazy metaphors of a space race among growing nations. A national space programme is more like running a marathon. It is not so much about Indians finishing in the top three, but we will be more fit and healthy simply because we ran. And when we are committed to running this space marathon, we have to spend what it takes and train to the best of our ability in order to run it.

This piece was first published in the Business Standard. 

Photo: Sweetie 187