On March 16, India took a big step toward a Mars orbiter mission with the release of its budget. The proposal itself might not be particularly revolutionary —- such missions have been flown before, if not by India — but the planning strategies and subtext are a fascinating case study of business-as-unusual.
Although India has only recently begun a period of sustained economic growth and accelerated development, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was created in 1969 with a decidedly Earth-centric mandate. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, one of the key early players at ISRO, answered critics who accused India — a nation with hundreds of millions of its citizens mired in poverty — of misplaced priorities:
"There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned spaceflight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."
What seemed foolhardy four decades ago now appears to be remarkably plausible as India looks to join the forefront of interplanetary investigation. As NASA's planetary budget fights for its life and delays become ingrained as a fact of mission planning, India's Mars probe's launch date is — in apparent violation of the first law of budgetary physics — actually moving forward in time. Earlier plans pointed to a late-2010s or early-2020s launch, but with a recent infusion of $24 million, the mission could start its voyage as early as November of next year.
This accelerated schedule is almost comical to scientists and engineers working on instruments for more ossified space programs like NASA and ESA. In the United States or Europe, specific investigators often develop a particular instrument and then try to punch its ticket on a funded mission. Of course, this means there are always more instruments than seats on a mission, and missing the final cut leads to a holding pattern of perpetual tweaking. Ideally, these orphaned instruments have other applications and live long, productive lives as spinoff technologies. Even if they don't, the institutional knowledge associated with an instrument in constant development means that ambitious missions can be planned to the last milligram to maximize scientific output. (And yet somehow, most missions suffer delays and budget overruns …)
The cold warriors were all wrong, it seems, as they get lapped by the post-colonial assets they once exploited.