In 1981, when India’s space scientists grappled with the challenge of finding a metal-free transportable platform for its new satellite, they turned to an improbable frugal innovation. As the world watched amazed, Indian scientists wheeled out their gleaming, new satellite on a creaking, old bullock cart.
More than three decades on, as the Mars Orbiter Mission slipped into the red planet’s orbit yesterday, it was still, in part, the same amazing story of endless tweaking and recycling of delicate equipment to keep costs down and tide over technology constraints.
To many, Wednesday’s triumph underlined the credibility of India’s space technology, despite the country’s antiquated industrial processes and manufacturing record, and the brilliance of its poorly paid scientists whose only reward, perhaps, is the collective national pride their work generates.
“It is a priceless feeling when an entire nation celebrates your success,” Isro chief K Radhakrishnan told reporters after the mission’s success.
For a national space programme that saw its first scientists functioning out of an abandoned church, much of the workaround at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) is out of sheer necessity, according to a report by Hindustan Times.
After India carried out nuclear-weapons tests in 1974, its access to technical know-how and sophisticated technology was limited.
As for money, there was never enough. India currently spends $1.2bn a year on its space program. In comparison, US space agency NASA has a budget of $17.5bn for the year ending Sept 30. To keep costs down for India’s first inter-planetary mission, affectionately nicknamed MOM, scientists relied on technologies they had used before and kept the size of the payload small, at 15 kg. They saved on fuel by using a smaller rocket that was adapted from a launch vehicle that first flew in 1993. Only one physical model of the Mangalyaan was built.
Isro engineers employed an unusual “slingshot” method for Mangalyaan’s interplanetary journey that began last November. Lacking enough rocket power to blast directly out of Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull, it orbited the Earth for several weeks while building up enough velocity to break free. That helped avoid using a more expensive more expensive heavy launch vehicle.
Two-thirds of the craft’s parts were made by Indian companies such as Larsen & Toubro and Godrej & Boyce.
The Mars mission was delivered on a shoestring budget of $74m, less than the price of the cheapest passenger jet from Boeing. Or the cost of making the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Gravity’ on which about $100m was spent.