India’s Space Program Faces Challenges, Even After Mangalyaan Success

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online

When the Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan (MOM) successfully entered orbit around the Red Planet, it was a defining moment for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) – but as media reports published late last week revealed, it also shed light on some of the challenges facing the country’s fledgling space program.
Once Mangalyaan completed its orbital insertion maneuver on Wednesday, it made the ISRO just the fourth agency to have traveled to Mars, joining NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). In addition, it allowed India to become the first Asian country to successfully reach the Red Planet, as well as the first space program ever to do so on its first attempt.
It should have been a moment of immense pride, especially for those who had a hand in building the MOM spacecraft, but as Reuters reporter Aditya Kalra pointed out on Friday, “S.M. Vaidya, head of business at conglomerate Godrej’s aerospace division that made the spacecraft’s engine and thruster components, sounded surprisingly downbeat.”
While Vaidya told Kalra that the mission was a major achievement and one of which ISRO officials should be thrilled about, he added that one mission to Mars was not enough to sustain the country’s small but promising space travel industry. The success of the project had “boosted” India’s “prestige in the global space race” and “raised the profile of Indian companies involved in the project,” Kalra said, but the news wasn’t all good.
“Godrej and some other firms are frustrated at what they say is the slow execution of projects and lack of government support, which are hampering India’s efforts to compete with China and Russia as a cheaper option for launching satellites,” the Reuters reporter said. “Unless they fly more, they will not buy more from us,” explained Vaidya.
Mangalyaan was built in 15 months for a reported $74 to $75 million, making it a bargain in comparison to NASA’s over $600 million MAVEN spacecraft. Two-thirds of the orbiter’s parts were manufactured by domestic firms such as Godrej & Boyce and Larsen & Toubro, which according to Reuters is India’s largest engineering company.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he wants to expand India’s 50-year-old space program. The government has increased funding for space research by 50 percent to almost $1 billion this financial year. But the program is still small, and the small number of launches limits the growth potential of private companies that supply them,” Kalra said, adding that government data said that ISRO accomplished nearly 30 missions from 2007 for 2012.
During that time period, it had planned to conduct more than twice that amount, but they were delayed due to “development complexity,” according to the news agency. India plans to conduct 58 missions from 2012 through 2017, but only 17 have been complete to date, and Kalra said that the ISRO would not comment on why that was.
“Some company executives and experts do not see that changing any time soon, with the absence of heavy rocket launchers, too few launch facilities and bureaucratic delays hampering growth,” the Reuters reporter added. “India performs only a handful of launches annually, compared with 20 or more carried out by the United States, Russia and China, according to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a defense ministry think-tank.”
Similarly, while the low price tag of the MOM equipment has been one of the primary talking points of the mission, NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel explained that the cost-cutting measures did require ISRO to make some concessions in terms of quality – specifically, less sophisticated equipment that won’t last as long, fewer cameras and fewer scientific instruments.
Amaresh Kollipara, a managing partner of the company Earth 2 Orbit (which pairs private satellite providers with the Indian space agency), told NPR that the comparison between Mangalyaan and MAVEN was similar to the difference between “a Honda Civic” and “a Mercedes S-Class.” Brumfiel added that India also chose a less expensive orbit than NASA – one that required less engine firing to slow down, but keeps the probe further away from the planet.
In addition, the money allocated to the engineers involved on each project varied greatly. According to Bruce Jakosky, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and the primary investigator on the MAVEN project, his team had as many as 600 people working on the NASA probe at one point.
Kollipara noted that he had heard reports suggesting that the ISRO aerospace engineering team members were being paid the equivalent of approximately $1,000 per month (50,000 to 60,000 rupees per month) for their hard work. “I can assure you that NASA engineers earn a lot more than that,” he told NPR.
While addressing the MOM team following the vehicle’s successful entry into orbit on Wednesday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “despite our many limitations,” the ISRO team had “achieved the near impossible” and that “inspired our future generations.” He added, “the success of our space program is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation.”