NASA Needs an Indian Tutorial

What can the U.S. space program learn from the Indian one? 
Ready, set, Mars. 

What can the U.S. space program learn from the Indian one? Not much, if the standard is outer-space achievement: India's modest record mostly includes feats the U.S. accomplished decades ago. But if the standard is having a clear vision of what you want to accomplish -- and getting that done quickly and economically, there might be a lesson or two.

Consider the speech that India's new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, gave Monday, shortly after India's space program successfully launched five satellites belonging to far wealthier countries on an Indian-designed rocket. Combatting criticism that India's space program is a profligate waste when so many of the nation's citizens struggle to fulfill basic needs, Modi offered a concise vision for why such launches are necessary:

Many misunderstand space technology to be for the elite. That it has nothing to do with the common man. I however believe such technology is fundamentally connected with the common man. As a change agent, it can empower and connect, to transform his life.

Modi spoke of space:

It drives our modern communication, connecting even the remotest family to the mainstream. It empowers the child in the farthest village with quality education, through Long-distance Learning. It ensures quality healthcare to the most distant person, through Tele-medicine. It enables the youth in a small town, with various new job opportunities.

This is high-flying rhetoric, but what matters is how closely it hews to the original vision for the Indian Space Research Organisation, established in 1969. On the ISRO (the Indian equivalent of NASA) website, Vikram Sarabhai, the physicist regarded as the patriarch of the space program, is quoted dismissing the notion that India should compete with rich, developed countries to explore the moon and planets. Rather, the purpose of India's space program is "the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."

It's interesting to set that against the uncertain priorities of the U.S. space program since the end of the Apollo moon-landing program more than 40 years ago. President Richard Nixon's space shuttle gave way to renewed visions of moon-landing under both Bush presidencies -- and later to President Barack Obama scuttling a return to the moon and setting a long-term goal of reaching Mars via a series of steps beginning with a preposterous asteroid landing. Meanwhile, expert committees appear with regularity, offering visions of exploration that are then ignored for lack of political consensus. (It's worth noting that India's Congress is more dysfunctional than the U.S.'s, and yet it has remained consistent on its space objectives.)

To be sure, the U.S. space program has accomplished a lot in the last 50 years, in spite of flighty, shifting priorities. But the absence of a national rationale for space exploration has resulted in a NASA that lacks clear direction and is hamstrung by an aging bureaucracy incapable of spending the agency's considerable funding in a manner that satisfies anyone.

Contrast that with ISRO, whose low budgets and expectations, combined with a pragmatic, results-driven vision, have more than met its modest goals. (India's program has budget of approximately $1 billion, about 6 percent of NASA's.) ISRO has launched communication and Earth-observing satellites on Indian-designed and -built rockets (that now serve commercial clients), thereby benefiting Modi's "common man" and generating profits.

India's space policymakers and scientists have -- modestly -- begun looking beyond Earth's orbit. In 2008, they launched Chandrayaan-1, a lunar probe that, in line with Sarabhai's vision, was focused on technology demonstration. More ambitiously, in 2013, the Indians launched their Mars Orbiter Mission which -- if it succeeds -- will allow India to beat out even China in becoming the first Asian nation to visit Mars.

What makes the Mars mission so compelling, aside from its origins, is the $75 million price tag --"less than the Hollywood movie Gravity," as Modi noted on Monday -- and the mere 18 months it took the engineers to design the vehicle and bring it to the launch pad. How did the Indians do it? The relatively low-tech effort benefited from the mistakes and successes of the missions that preceded it, as well as the relatively low cost associated with hiring high-quality Indian engineers.

But the biggest advantage may have been a tolerance for risk that simply wouldn't fly in the U.S. space program -- which launched its own $671 million Mars probe days after the Indian one. The Indians, rather than going the traditional route of building multiple models (including a spare) took a direct, go-for-broke route and built the final probe outright, skipping the other expensive, time-consuming (but risk-averting) steps. So far, that seems like a good gamble. But even if the probe fails, the Indians can claim that at least some of their technical goals were accomplished at a relatively cheap price.

Could NASA take similar risks? It would take a big cultural shift in an institution that does things such as building a multi-billion dollar rocket system that has no planned mission except, perhaps, as a jobs program. Likewise, speeding up development and reducing costs like the Indians may be acceptable for robotic probes, but it's simply not going to be acceptable for human space missions where lives are at stake.

For the foreseeable future, NASA will remain the world's space leader, both in technology and funding. But the rise of India as a budget spacefaring nation suggests that the U.S. may no longer be the most determined or ambitious. Certainly, NASA can't -- and probably shouldn't -- be like its Indian counterpart. But it certainly can take inspiration from India's bootstrap willingness to go where no Asian country has gone, and to do so with a clearly explained purpose, on a veritable shoestring.

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