India's successful Mars mission ushered in a new era in space exploration as the nation became the first one in Asia to reach the Red Planet. Experts say the feat reflects the country's technological potential.
"History has been created. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible […] the success of our space program is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Wednesday, September 24, after India triumphed in its first interplanetary mission by putting a spacecraft into the Martian orbit on its maiden attempt.
The space probe, which was launched in November 2013, traveled almost 780 million kilometers (485 million miles) over more than 300 days to reach an orbit around Mars, where it is now set to scan the Red Planet's surface and look for methane, which could indicate the presence of a primitive form of life on the planet. The probe will circle Mars for a period of six months while its scientific instruments gather data and send it back to Earth.
The success of the Mangalyaan or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) places India alongside a select group of space explorers such as the United States, Russia and Europe. The South Asian country's achievement is particularly significant given that more than half of all previous attempts to reach the Red Planet have failed. Furthermore, India is also the first Asian nation to have managed such a feat, after similar attempts by China and Japan failed.
"For India to reach Mars' orbit on its first attempt is a real cause for celebration as it demonstrates that the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the country's space agency, has the capability to perform complex maneuvers in space and this will bode well for future missions," said David Alexander, director of the US-based Rice Space Institute. "The mission is also a great source of pride for the country as it puts Indians on the scientific world stage along with the Americans, Russians and others," he added.
Many critics within the country and abroad, however, question why India spends vast sums of money on space exploration when the country is plagued by widespread poverty and malnutrition. But Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, argues that for a country like India, there are many technological, educational and economic benefits from space research in areas such as weather forecasting and telecommunications.
"Moreover, as a post-colonial society, India is also wary of dependence on other countries, which would be its fate if it does not have an autonomous national space program," Rajagopalan told DW.
Apart from being a rare area of achievement in India's public sector, the country's space program is also an extremely cost-effective one, the expert pointed out; stressing that New Delhi therefore cannot be accused of wasting money.
Indeed, the country's Mars mission cost around 74 million USD, a fraction of Mars missions carried out by other countries. For instance, the US space agency NASA spent around 670 million USD on its Maven Mars program, which was also launched at the same time as MOM. The main reason behind India's ability to keep the costs down, analysts say, is the low cost of labor in the country.
Scientific expertise is cheap in India compared to other, richer, countries and this definitely gives the South Asian country a cost advantage," explained space expert Rajagopalan, adding that the "typical annual salary of a mid-level Indian scientist would only be around 20,000 USD."
Some observers say that with its relatively inexpensive program, India could become a major player in the business of sending satellites and other vehicles into space, and compete with established players on this field such as the US and Russia. The annual global space market is estimated to be around 300 billion USD.
"ISRO definitely aspires to capture a big part of the space business, but India still cannot compete effectively in launching heavier loads (over 2 tons), which is a disadvantage," underlines Rajagopalan. Although the country is competitive in the sub-2 tonne market, it needs to both develop the technology such as cryogenic rocket engines and also expand its launch facilities before it becomes truly competitive," she added.
Analyst Alexander believes India is certainly making a strong case to establish itself as a major player on the market. "With some smart marketing and strategic partnering there is no reason to assume that the growing Indian share of the space market will slow," he told DW.
Beyond the technological and economic benefits of having a space program, many share the view that the decisions to undertake these missions are also political in nature. In fact, a section of political analysts argue that Asia is witnessing a twenty-first century space race, particularly between India and China.
An Asian space race?
Rajagopalan believes that space is clearly emerging as one of the many areas in which Asian states compete. "As there are several claimants to great power status in Asia, the competition in every arena is stiff. While China and Japan would seem to have the most robust space programs today, India is following closely behind," she said.
Alexander is of the view, however, that even though India and China are emerging as strong space nations in their own right, there is no space race between them in the same sense as the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s and 1970s. As both countries expand their portfolios in space, they will find that partnership and collaboration will benefit them more in terms of scientific exploration, he noted.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to India, an agreement was signed between New Delhi and Beijing that enables both sides to encourage cooperation in the realm of space exploration. Speaking about the presumed space race after the mission's success, Indian space agency ISRO's chairman K. Radhakrishnan said "we are really not racing with anyone, but with ourselves to get into the next level of excellence."