To space or not to space

India is launching is its first Mars mission (the Mars Orbiter mission) tomorrow, the 5th of November 2013. What got me writing this blog post (apart from my love of space-related stuff, national pride and the hope of something as ground breaking as the discovery of water on the moon that came about in India’s first mission to the moon, Chandrayaan 1) was the presence of the usual ‘but they don’t have enough toilets/schools/roads/electricity/hospitals….so why do they need a space programme’ sort of comments.

This isn’t new so why am I bothering with a blogpost about this?

I do not pretend to have the credentials to judge the merits of this Mars mission. The mission may be brilliant or may be ill conceived. Instead what I want to address here is the perpetual “if you can’t solve all the problems of your country how can you think of a space mission” brand of criticism.

All those who raise these questions are not all wrong and many are extremely well meaning. We need more open debate and discussion and I present my views here.

My response to the critics is this:

Space and related technologies lead to direct massive socio-economic benefits. Take as examples:

– the weather monitoring satellites launched in the 90s and first decade of this millennium that are used to monitor and predict weather patterns- monsoon, hurricanes, cyclones and the like. Without these we would suffer more crop damage, poverty, loss of life in natural disasters such as the cyclone Phaillin where fewer than 100 people died (compare this to 10,000 deaths in the 1991 cyclone that hit Eastern India).

– Consider how the telecommunication satellites have connected huge swathes of India including rural populations. This contrasts with the India where getting a landline telephone connection could take months and was the preserve of middle class and rich people. Today even a rickshaw puller can own a mobile phone. The ability to communicate has implications for social equality as well as economic prosperity.

– A few decades ago there were critics who saw no point in developing expensive programs to indigenously develop satellites and launch them. Yet today India can make satellites that it needs and launch them, all at a fraction of the cost that is average for the global satellite market. This has given India a commercial competitive edge in the global satellite market making the space program a net earner in the budget. It was possible only through hard scientific graft and this kind of know-how is not given free by more advanced nations. You have to earn it!

Poor countries with large populations (usually with illiteracy being a further problem) have economies that depend millions working jobs at the low value end of the economic chain. The share of global trade value is low and the net addition to product value is low. Therefore scientific projects are needed that instigate technological development, cause industries (albeit slowly and starting small) to grow which are at the high value end, slowly moving the country and its economy towards development. Otherwise these countries risk remaining stagnant as pools of cheap manual labour in the global economy.

One can’t just send a probe to Mars one day on a whim. It takes a huge concerted effort and development of many other ancillary technologies to achieve such a dream. Each bit of scientific advancement has a ripple effect in improving a vast array of products and services for the people. Many of these would either not happen as quickly or as effectively without such ambitious missions. These missions also need trained and capable technical personnel spurring technical education.

Inspiring a people and allowing them to dream. I dreamt of being an astronaut as a young girl in India, but knew I would have to go to the USA or a European country to make that dream come true. Eventually that dream died. The pain has never left me. However, with each such project, the generation of young people in India can dream and hope to even fulfill these dreams in India. This has incredible power- inspiring bright and talented young people to study Science, Engineering and Technology. They may not all eventually sit in a rocket, but they may well be setting up the next Infosys, invent the next Bose speakers, help find life in space, solve the energy crisis,find a cure for cancer…the possibilities are endless.

Progress has to be holistic. For genuine progress, social upliftment and eradication of poverty and inequality there has to be development in all spheres. Ignoring advanced science and technology till there is 0 poverty, 0 illiteracy, 0 child malnutrition, etc. we may never get to any target. A broader vision is needed when making such policy decisions than the immediate need.

It’s not the prerogative of rich countries alone! The United States sent a man to the moon in the 1960s, yet there were both social and economic inequity present in that country then. People have aspirations, and these translate to nations having aspirations as well. While an individual’s aspirations may be small, collectively a country (even a relatively poor one), can have big aspirations. Achieving such aspirations can spur people on to bigger and better things, give them a sense of selfbelief. The Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger” applies to more than sport!

A strong reality check! Are India or China devoting 30% of their national budget to these so called vanity projects? Or is it in fact a much smaller fraction? For India, the entire space programme merits 0.34% of the government expenditure. Also, are these (space faring) the only scientific missions espoused by such countries? The answer is no! India has had several extremely ambitious scientific missions that have underpinned its growth yet these are not mentioned in the same article by critics, since these projects (green revolution) seem directly linked to alleviation of a very visible problem. My argument is that the indirect linkage to other programmes is no less important to the nation’s development.

Space race! Some people are worried that India and China are now locked into a wasteful space race, each trying to outdo the other with ambitious space missions when instead they should look to their poor and needy. Indeed every country should look to its poor and needy. And at the same time, make real progress that is sustainable in a future where other countries may have developed more advanced technology. Every nation has to try and meet its future needs and cannot risk being left behind. The rivalry aspect (when not out of check) can result in positive competition, when the two nations can bring out the best in each other. I think if either India or China (or any emerging country) makes some astounding discoveries in space, it’s a contribution that can help all of mankind move forward, and be the “one small step for man and a giant leap for mankind!


One comment on “To space or not to space

  1. Dear Arti,
    what I liked most about these post was the way you explained to “1st world” critics why we do have the right to dream and purse wild goals, like exploring the outer space. Good luck for the Mangalyaan!

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