When India’s Mangalyaan space probe entered an orbit around Mars recently, the country made history – twice.
India became the only nation so far to reach Mars on its first attempt. It also spent the least amount of money to do so. India’s Mars mission has a price tag of about $74 million, a fraction of the $671 million cost of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s latest Mars program. The success was an important advertisement for a business India hopes to enter: sending satellites and spacecraft aloft at a fraction of the cost of U.S. and European competitors.
In June, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasted that India has spent less to reach Mars than Hollywood producers spent on the movie “Gravity,” which cost $100 million to make. To hold costs down, India relied on technologies it has used before and kept the size of the payload small, at 15 kilograms. It saved on fuel by using a smaller rocket to put its spacecraft into Earth orbit first to gain enough momentum to slingshot it toward Mars. “India has cheap indigenous technology,” said Ajey Lele, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi think-tank. He said cost-saving innovations “came out of sheer necessity.”
The Indian Space Research Organisation has always operated on a shoe-string budget. In its early days, space scientists worked out of an abandoned church near its first launch pad. Later, after India carried out
nuclear-weapons tests, other countries refused to share their technical know-how, limiting India’s access to sophisticated technology. “India had no option but to develop its own,” said Mr. Lele.
Today, India spends $1.2 billion a year on its space program. In comparison, NASA has a budget of $17.5 billion for the year ending Sept. 30. Some critics say India, a country where more than 300 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, should concentrate more on terrestrial issues. Others argue that the space program will help to fight poverty and boost development by driving innovation in communications services and meteorological forecasting for the country’s largely agricultural economy. Kopillil Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO, told television news channel NDTV that scientists had kept costs down using “novel” approaches.
Going around the Earth and raising the spacecraft’s orbit using a propulsion system rather than relying on a heavy launch vehicle lowered the overall cost of the mission, Mr. Radhakrishnan said. Comparatively low salaries in India also helped reduce the outlay for the voyage, which was mounted at a lower cost than missions undertaken by Russia, the European Space Agency and Japan, which each spent more than $100 million on their attempts. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow in space-security studies at the Observer Research Foundation, said “a mid-level official at ISRO would be on about 100,000 rupees ($1,644) a month.”
Out of 51 missions to Mars, only three space agencies – in Russia, the U.S. and Europe — have succeeded.
India, which currently has around 35 satellites in Earth orbit for communication, television broadcasting and remote sensing, last year launched its first military satellite to gather naval intelligence. Overall, India has launched more than 50 satellites since 1975, according to ISRO. The country is gaining increasing recognition worldwide as a low-cost option for sending satellites into orbit.
The global space market was pegged at $304.31 billion in 2012, the latest year for which data are available, according to the Space Foundation, a U.S.-based research group.