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← Is India's space program worth the money?

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Showing Revision 3 created 05/20/2014 by Rita Logue.

  1. [Voiceover Countdown] Plus one ... two... three.. liftoff
  2. Newshour: In early November, India launched a 320-ton rocket
  3. on a mission to Mars.
  4. If all goes according to plan, the Indian spacecraft will travel 485 million miles
  5. over more than 10 months and go into the orbit around Mars in September.
  6. The US, former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency
  7. are the only ones to have accomplished the feat
  8. Dr K Radhakrishnan : It is a challenging task, a complex task
  9. Newshour : Dr K Radhakrishnan is the director of the
  10. Indian Space Research organisation
  11. He was one of the engineers looking on when the Mangalyan
  12. or 'Mars craft' in Hindi launched
  13. The probe will be studying the atmosphere of Mars,
  14. and looking for traces of methane, which could be a sign of previous life.
  15. Dr Radhakrishnan: A lot of things are known about Mars
  16. But there are several issues which are yet to be understood, and understood precisely
  17. Newshour : The mission to Mars is a source of immense national pride in India
  18. but it might also signal a new Asian space race, and it's already
  19. triggered a debate about the benefits of exploring another planet,
  20. when so many Indians struggle for basic necessities
  21. Though it has been in existence for nearly fifty years, the very fact that
  22. India has a space program is unknown to much of the world
  23. But since its inception, India has not only launched a mission to Mars
  24. but has sent a probe to the moon, and has built and launched 70 satelites
  25. that do everything from measuring water resources to enabling
  26. mobile communications in rural India.
  27. Radhakrishnan says that at its heart, India's space program is meant
  28. to improve life for India's 1.2 billion people.
  29. One critical mission is to predict where and when storms will hit land,
  30. so people in the storm's path can be taken to safety.
  31. In 1999, when a massive storm hit India's east coast
  32. more than 10,000 people died.
  33. But a few months ago, when another powerful storm hit the same area,
  34. only 21 people died. Nearly a million people had evacuated
  35. after early warning data from Indian satelites
  36. Dr Radhakrishnan: Part of this use of earth observation satellite is
  37. to provide services to the fisherman, to the farmer, to the decision-maker
  38. at the grassroot level.
  39. Newshour: : So how does understanding the atmosphere of Mars,
  40. or whether there was methane, help the farmer, or the fisherman in India?
  41. Dr. Radhakrishnan: It is not directly; understanding of the atmosphere of Mars
  42. is not going to help him immediately, directly.
  43. Newshour: But he says technology from the Mars mission will help improve
  44. the satellites India has yet to launch, which will directly benefit
  45. ordinary Indian citizens.
  46. But beyond the tangible scientific benefits, the feat of sending a rocket
  47. to Mars has been a huge point of pride for India.
  48. As the Mars spacecraft left Earth's orbit, Indians took to Twitter
  49. to express their excitement, a point echoed by Dr. Radhakrishnan
  50. who says the mission has inspired the nation.
  51. Dr. Radhakrishnan: People are keeping awake in the night to see
  52. how the Mars orbiter operations are progressing.
  53. So if you can transform so many young minds, and they say "yes, we need to
  54. take up a career in science," it is a big transformation
  55. for the country, for the future.
  56. Newshour: And working for the space agency is prestigious.
  57. Hundreds of thousands of engineers have applied for just a few hundred slots.
  58. The pride is also in part for how little India spends to explore space.
  59. The Mars mission costs 4.5 billion rupees, or just over 70 million dollars.
  60. Compare that to the Maven mission, a similar NASA probe that's also currently
  61. en route to Mars. It costs nearly ten times as much.
  62. The savings are achieved in part because engineering labour is cheaper.
  63. The Indian program recycles and adapts components like launch vehicles

  64. and builds far fewer models, relying heavily on computer testing.
  65. But spending any money on space exploration here is controversial.
  66. India is still a developing country, where nearly a third of the population,
  67. about 400 million people, live on less than $1.25 a day.
  68. Brinda Adige runs an NGO called Global Concerns India,
  69. focused on women and children, here in a slum in the city of Bangalore,
  70. less than ten miles from the headquarters of the Indian Space Agency.
  71. She says she was sad when she first heard about the Mars mission.
  72. Adige: At one end of the spectrum, so much of money that is being spent
  73. to send a rocket out into outer space, when we know that here on Earth

  74. in my country, there are children dying every day because they have no food
  75. to eat. So many more going away, spending their days and nights
  76. without electricity. No roads, no education, no protection for women
  77. and the girl child, anywhere in this country.
  78. NewsHour: Do you think that, if they didn't spend the money on the satellite,
  79. that they would spend the money on women and girls' issues?
  80. Adige: No, they would not. They would not.
  81. Their priorities are certainly not looking at children, women, human beings
  82. who are in need of basic necessities just to live.
  83. NewsHour: So you're not against the science, just the priorities.
  84. Adige: Yes.
  85. NewsHour: Adige gathered a group of women from the slum
  86. who echoed some of the same concerns.
  87. I asked the group that, given the millions being spent on the mission to Mars,
  88. what kind of impact additional money could have in this neighborhood.
  89. They described a litany of issues including bad roads, lack of access
  90. to medical care, the high costs of education, and complaints about
  91. sanitation issues like sewage runoff after the rains
  92. and a lack of safe drinking water.
  93. One of these women, Manoja, who works as a cook in a nicer part of town,
  94. took us to her mother-in-law's house, and showed us
  95. the contaminated water that comes out of her pipes.
  96. Manoja [interpreted]: All of this water in the house smells terrible.
  97. NewsHour: It smelt rancid.
  98. This is the municipal water the family pays for from the city.
  99. They have to spend extra on trucked-in clean drinking water:
  100. money they don't have.
  101. But Dr. Radhakrishnan defends the Indian Space Program budget --
  102. in total, about a billion dollars a year.
  103. NewsHour: On a global level, India's program is incredibly inexpensive.
  104. On a local level, it's still very hard for people to comprehend on the streets
  105. of Bangalore or elsewhere, spending so much money going to a different planet.
  106. Dr. Radhakrishnan: The question is in absolute terms when you talk about
  107. the $1 billion that we spend annually. Is it providing the benefits to the people?
  108. Space is touching the lives of every man and woman in this country.
  109. NewsHour: Radhakrishnan points out that the entire Indian Space Program
  110. accounts for one-third of one percent of the nation's budget.
  111. Those numbers may make it easier to justify what may be a larger goal:
  112. competing with another superpower.
  113. Just last month, China became the third country behind the US
  114. and the former Soviet Union to land a rover on the moon,
  115. and China has successfully completed manned space flights
  116. a feat several years away for India.
  117. But in going to Mars, India could best its neighbor.
  118. The competition is a fuel India is reluctant to admit.
  119. In November 2011, a joint Chinese-Russian Mars mission failed.
  120. NewsHour: Is there political pressure to keep up with the next-door-neighbor, China?
  121. Dr. Radhakrishnan: Each country has their own priorities,
  122. their own vision for the space program.
  123. India has its vision, China has its vision.
  124. We are pursuing our vision.
  125. NewsHour: It doesn't matter when China does what it does?
  126. Dr. Radhakrishnan: It does its program, we do our program.
  127. NewsHour: But it was right after China's failure that the Prime Minister here said,
  128. "Here's our priority, we're going to Mars."
  129. Dr. Radhakrishnan: See, November 2013 is an opportune time for
  130. a mission to Mars. And such opportune time occurs only once in 26 months.
  131. NewsHour: While the Indian launch date did capitalize on when the distance
  132. between Mars and the earth is shorter, to critics like Brinda Adige,
  133. this is simply a space race.
  134. Adige: You've gone to Mars, now I also have to go to Mars.
  135. You've reached moon? I must also go and see whether there's water
  136. on moon or not. Whether my people down here in this country have
  137. drinking water or not, is a quandary.
  138. The question arises, "To what end?"
  139. NewsHour: To administrators like Dr. Radhakrishnan, success with
  140. the Mars mission is another step in helping the world see the red planet,
  141. and India, in a new way.