February 18, 2014


[India’s 3,000-pound Mars satellite carries five instruments that will measure methane gas, a marker of life on the planet. Maven (for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), weighs nearly twice as much but carries eight heavy-duty instruments that will investigate what went wrong in the Martian climate, which could have once supported life.]
By Saritha Rai
The Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Spacecraft mounted atop a rocket at the Satish
Dhawan Space Center
 in India. Indian Space Research Organization
/European Pressphoto Agency
BANGALORE, India While India’s recent launch of a spacecraft to Mars was a remarkable feat in its own right, it is the $75 million mission’s thrifty approach to time, money and materials that is getting attention.
Just days after the launch of India’s Mangalyaan satellite, NASA sent off its own Mars mission, five years in the making, named Maven. Its cost: $671 million. The budget of India’s Mars mission, by contrast, was just three-quarters of the $100 million that Hollywood spent on last year’s space-based hit, “Gravity.”
“The mission is a triumph of low-cost Indian engineering,” said Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist and a professor at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research.
“By excelling in getting so much out of so little, we are establishing ourselves as the most cost-effective center globewide for a variety of advanced technologies,” said Mr. Narasimha.
India’s 3,000-pound Mars satellite carries five instruments that will measure methane gas, a marker of life on the planet. Maven (for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), weighs nearly twice as much but carries eight heavy-duty instruments that will investigate what went wrong in the Martian climate, which could have once supported life.
“Ours is a contrasting, inexpensive and innovative approach to the very complex mission,” said K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, in an interview at the space agency’s heavily guarded Bangalore headquarters. “Yet it is a technically well-conceived and designed mission,” he said. Wealthier countries may have little incentive to pursue technological advances on the cheap, but not a populous, resource-starved country. So jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters.
“If necessity is the mother of invention, constraint is the mother of frugal innovation,” said Terri Bresenham, the chief executive of GE Healthcare, South Asia, who is based in Bangalore. GE Healthcare has the largest research and development operations in India and has produced low-cost innovations in infant health, cancer detection and heart disease treatment.
In India, even a priority sector like space research gets a meager 0.34 percent of the country’s total annual outlay. Its $1 billion space budget is only 5.5 percent of NASA’s budget.
ISRO has learned to make cost-effectiveness a daily mantra. Its inexpensive but reliable launch capabilities have become popular for the launches of small French, German and British satellites. Although the space agency had to build ground systems from scratch, its Chandrayaan moon mission in 2008 cost one-tenth what other nations’ moon shots cost, said Mylswamy Annadurai, mission director.
The most obvious way ISRO does it is low-cost engineering talent, the same reason so many software firms use Indian engineers. India’s abundant supply of young technical talent helped rein in personnel costs to less than 15 percent of the budget. “Rocket scientists in India cost very little,” said Ajey Lele, a researcher at a New Delhi think tank, the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, and author of “Mission Mars: India’s Quest for the Red Planet.”
The average age of India’s 2,500-person Mars team is 27. “At 50, I am the oldest member of my team; the next oldest is 32,” said Subbiah Arunan, the project’s director. Entry-level Indian space engineers make about $1,000 a month, less than a third of what their Western counterparts make.
The Indians also had a short development schedule that contributed heavily to the mission’s low cost, said Andrew Coates, planetary scientist at University College London and a leader of the European ExoMars expedition planned for 2018. The engineers had to compress their efforts into 18 months (other countries’ space vehicles have taken six years or more to build). It was either launch by November 2013 or wait another 26 months when the geometry of the sun, Mars and Earth would again be perfect for a launch.
“Since the time was so short, for the first time in the history of such a project, we scheduled tasks by the hour — not days, not weeks,” said Mr. Arunan. Mr. Radhakrishnan added: “Could we pull it off in less than two years’ time? Frankly, I doubted it.”
The modest budget did not allow for multiple iterations. So, instead of building many models (a qualification model, a flight model and a flight spare), as is the norm for American and European agencies, scientists built the final flight model right from the start. Expensive ground tests were also limited. “India’s ‘late beginner’ advantage was that it could learn from earlier mission failures,” said Mr. Lele.
“It is a question of philosophy, and each country has its own,” explained Mr. Radhakrishnan. “The Russians, for example, believe in putting large amounts of time and resources into testing so that the systems are robust.”
His agency curbed costs by another technique familiar to businesses in India: transforming old technology into new. The launch vehicle was first developed in the late 1970s and was augmented several times to become the solid propulsion system currently used in its latest Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehiclelauncher.
The G.S.L.V.’s engine also dates back to the early 1970s, when ISRO engineers used technology transferred from France’s Ariane program. The same approach, which the Indian scientists call modularity, extended to building spacecraft and communication systems. “We sometimes have to trade off an ideal configuration for cost-effectiveness, but the heritage is being improved constantly,” said Mr. Radhakrishnan.
Cost savings also came from using similar systems across a dozen concurrent projects. Many related technologies could be used in the Mars project; Astrosat, an astronomy mission to be launched in late 2014; the second moon mission, which is two years away; and even Aditya, a solar mission four years out.
Systems like the attitude control, which maintains the orientation of the spacecraft; the gyro, a sensor that measures the satellite’s deviation from its set path; or the star tracker, a sensor that orients the satellite to distant objects in the celestial sphere, are the same across several ISRO missions.
“The building blocks are kept the same so we don’t have to tailor-make for each mission,” said Mr. Annadurai of the moon mission. “Also, we have a ready backup if a system fails.”
Teams also did the kind of thing engineers working on missions do around the world. They worked through weekends with no overtime pay, putting in more hours to the dollar. Mr. Arunan slept on the couch in his office through the 18 months, rereading his favorite P. G. Wodehouse novels to relieve stress. "This is the Indian way of working,” said Mr. Annadurai.
Despite its cost-effectiveness, many have argued that India’s extraterrestrial excursions are profligate in a country starved of even basic necessities like clean drinking water and toilets. Millions sleep hungry at night, critics have emphasized. They condemn the Mars mission as nothing more than showing off.
But scientists have argued that early Indian satellites paved the way for today’s advanced disaster management systems and modern telecom infrastructure. In the 1970s, cyclones killed tens of thousands of people. Last year, when Cyclone Phailin struck India’s east coast, the casualties were in the single digits. In the 1980s, television broadcasts were available in only four Indian cities, but today they are found countrywide.
The Mars mission is also having a multiplier effect on Indian industry. Companies like Larsen & Toubro and Godrej & Boyce, which built vital parts for the satellite, will use this high-tech expertise to compete for global aerospace, military and nuclear contracts worth billions of dollars. Godrej, for example, has begun making engine parts for Boeing.
Scientists have also said that space exploration and the alleviation of poverty need not be mutually exclusive. “If the Mars mission’s $75 million was distributed equally to every Indian, they would be able to buy a cup of roadside chai once every three years,” said Mr. Narasimha, the aerospace scientist, referring to the tea that many Indians drink.
“My guess is that even the poorest Indians will happily forgo their chai to be able to see their country send a rocket all the way to Mars.”
@ The New York Times