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What is it about nice people that attract total idiots?Nice people are martyrs. Idiots are evangelists.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mars on the cheap

Today I was reading about how India, land of the gang-rape as an art form, had successfully put an orbiter around Mars.  This orbiter was named Mangalyaan, which I believe is Hindi for "Star Trek: The Search For Buddha". It is also the very first time a nation has succeeded in its first attempt in putting a satellite around Ol' Rough and Reddy. (According to, the Russians are 2 good out of six on flybys, 1 out of 5 in landings, and 3 out of ten in orbits; the US of A is 4/5 on flybys, 4/7 on orbits, and a fantastic 7 of 8 on landings; Europe split the difference on their first mission, making orbit but failing to land its capsule, and got credit for the Rosetta mission flyby; and Japan botched their one attempt at orbit.)

Now mind you, I'm no liberal "why are we wasting money on space that should be going to Welfare" type, but the first thing I think when I hear "India goes into space" or "India builds a nuclear weapon, " or even "India films new Batman in Bombay movie" is, all those people in poverty.  You know, remember Sally Struthers pleading for us to give money for little Haji while munching reincarnated-grandpa-burgers off camera?  And when you look up the numbers, they don't lie:

Percentage of population below poverty level:

Russia:  13.1%  (BTW, a 50% drop since ditching the USSR thing, I'm told)
US of A: 16% and a scosch.
Europe:  16.4 %

INDIA:  32.7%.

At this point, I saw a Martin World News post coming on, and was prepared to file it away... until I got the rest of the story.

The US of A just put a new orbiter around Mars Monday, called the Maven.  Cost- $671 million.

The European mission that ended up a half-success back in '03?  $195 million.

The last Russian mission, called Phobos-Grunt, was supposed to land on the Red Planet's moon and collect samples, then come back.  It got stuck in earth orbit and burned up in trying to get it to come home.  A Phobos-Grunt II is planned for 2022-25, with an estimated cost of about 130.8 million dollars.

The cost for India's trip?  $74 million.  As in, 11% of what the latest US mission cost.

How did they do it so cheap- and still get it right the first time?

Lower costs for people- particularly engineers.

Prioritising home grown parts and technologies.

But most of all, they kept it simple.

"They've kept it small. The payload weighs only about 15kg. Compare that with the complexity in the payload in Maven and that will explain a lot about the cost," says Britain's Prof Andrew Coates, who will be a principal investigator on Europe's Mars rover in 2018.
"Of course, that reduced complexity suggests it won't be as scientifically capable, but India has been smart in targeting some really important areas that will complement what others are doing." (Courtesy BBC)

The author of the second article I read, one Jonathon Amos, came into this with the same thought I did.  But he- and I- learned.

The money would be better spent on healthcare and improved sanitation, so the argument goes.
But what this position often overlooks is that investment in science and technology builds capability and capacity, and develops the sort of people who benefit the economy and society more widely.
Space activity is also a wealth generator. Some of the stuff we do up there pays for stuff down here.
The industrialised nations know it; that's one of the reasons they invest so heavily in space activity.
Consider just the UK. It has dramatically increased its spending on space in recent years.

The government has even identified satellites as being one of the "eight great technologies" that can help rebalance the UK economy and drive it forward.

Mangalyaan's main job will be measuring the methane levels in the Martian atmosphere, helping to determine if certain Methaneophillic microbes might live in the Martian atmosphere. It will also study Martian weather systems, both of which will compliment data being collected by the US's Maven orbiter. And simple?  Mangalyaan actually means, "Mars craft."

It will join 4 other satellites orbiting Mars- The US-made Mars Odyssey (launched 2001) and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (launched 2005), along with the Maven;  and the European Mars Express (whose lander crashed, launched 2003).


  1. I just couldn't help reading this in an Indian accent.
    Huh. And here I thought they were only good for running 7-Elevens, putting gas in my car, and fixing my computers.
    I am growing a massive woody.

  2. Chris:
    A good read...didn't know the specifics on the success rate with the various space-faring nations.
    And it amazed ME when I read that INDIA (Caste Systems R Us) managed to get space-worthy...

    Why ANY of us on Mother Earth need to know the methane levels on MARS beats me.
    (they planning a cow-'farting contest there soon?)

    I'm still a fan of that "final frontier", but we seem to chronically run over-budget...guess we can thank unions for THAT as well.

    Very good post.

    Stay safe up there.