In a few hours, India will launch its Mangalyaan space craft to Mars from Sriharikota. If the mission is successful, in 11 months India will join only 3 other countries/space agencies that have sent a probe on the Red Planet after the US, Russia and the European Space Agency.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has indicated that the mission objectives are the studying of the Martian surface and atmosphere by the orbiting probe’s instruments. The probe will also look for clues to unlock the history of Mars’ atmosphere thought to be once far more substantial but lost into the void of space.
This certainly will be a historic moment for India, but the launch is significant in terms of recognizing our planet’s increasing efforts to reach our solar system neighbour. Specifically, the launch is being called an escalation of a growing space race between India, China, Japan and South Korea.
Commentaries on the launch have focused on India’s status as a developing nation and whether the cost of the launch is worth the potential efforts of poverty alleviation. The response from India has focused on the indirect benefits that space exploration brings in terms of solving other technological and social issues faced by the planet. In our interviews with those who have worked on both Shuttle and Apollo, similar sentiments were shared concerning how space technology has been adapted to life on Earth from Velcro, to fire resistant materials, to medical scanning devices. Indeed space exploration represents a very small fraction of the country’s GDP as is the case for developed nations.
In my other life, I work in the international development sector operating a start-up non-profit organization. Knowing that I have a foot in both worlds, I am often asked similar questions concerning space exploration and solving issues “in our own backyard first.” While it may seem logical from a purely budgetary stand point, positioning poverty alleviation against space exploration is a false dichotomy. The fact that India can even support a space exploration program is an example of its economic growth. India has rates of economic development staggeringly higher than many other emerging powers; even during the 2009 global economic crisis. Poverty rates by percentage of population have fallen by 10% in the last ten years and the country shows a constant upward trend in potable water sources to rural areas. Per capita income in the last ten years has doubled in India. And from a purely philosophical point of view, the space program has provided us with some of the starkest reminders for international cooperation and the fragility of our tiny blue planet. There was a reason that the “whole world looked up” although it was two Americans who touched down on the Moon in July of 1969. And although the impact of the Moon landing was wide-reaching, imagine India sending a probe to Mars in the 60s? What will be the impact on citizens of that country now knowing that they have sent something to another world? (I write more on this in an article published last year in York University Free Press called Earth Rises)
If we consider poverty alleviation as an investment in our future, space exploration must be considered so as well. I’m not speaking simply of flags and footprints and global posturing. I am speaking of the technological and social benefits of stepping off our world, colonizing new planets when our own can no longer sustain us, or learning of ways of preserving Earth for future generations as a result of our efforts to tame a far harsher Mars.
You can watch a live feed of the launch from the ISRO here. The feed will begin at 14:00 IST or 3:30AM EST.