India goes to Mars

Launch of a space probe is controversial – but justified

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On Tuesday India is due to launch a spacecraft from a small island in the Bay of Bengal, which aims to reach the planet Mars. The launch of the unmanned space probe Mangalyaan, which means “Mars craft” in Hindi, will be the most remarkable and controversial moment in India’s 30-year space programme. The $72m mission aims to collect information about the atmosphere on Mars and the nature of the Martian surface. If the vehicle gets to its destination next September, India will become only the fourth power in the world (after the US, Russia and the EU) to reach the Red Planet.

For India, Tuesday’s launch is a matter of great national pride. The government sees it as a way of stealing an interplanetary march on regional rival China. But many outside the country regard the spectacle of a nation as impoverished as India undertaking a mission to Mars as absurd. More than 40 per cent of children in the country are malnourished. Half the population have no toilet. The country has a third of the world’s poor. Critics regard India’s space programme as a delusional quest for some kind of superpower status.

This view is too simplistic. For one thing, space technology can bring lasting scientific benefits to the country. Its meteorologists derive much of their imagery from satellite observation. They have recently enjoyed success accurately predicting the movement of cyclones across the country, something that saves lives.

The outside world must also recognise the huge role that science in general – and space exploration in particular – have played in India’s political culture. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of a free India, was profoundly committed to the development of the nation’s scientific base. Today five planetariums across India are named after him. Space exploration is a national obsession – and arguably a healthier focus for the nation’s pride than militarism.

Many outside India will today wonder whether the $72m earmarked for this Mars mission is money well spent. But the reality is that $72m, by itself, is never going to bring 400m people out of poverty. Instead, the hope must be that India can somehow channel the energy and dynamism that we see in its space programme into tackling the country’s poverty, inequality, corruption and social woe. After all, a nation that seeks to pull its people out of chronic poverty will do so only if it maintains the broadest horizons and the highest dreams.


Letter in response to this editorial:

Nothing novel about Indian rockets / From Prof Alok Bhargava

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