Mars Orbiter: DIrector Srinivas in USA Today

"The gains from the technology and industry perspective have already been put into motion,"  Smita Srinivas interviewed by for USA Today

India has launched the country's first-ever Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and is expected to reach Mars in September.

Melissa Pandika, 10:54 a.m. EST January 29, 2014

(Photo Credits: Pallava Bagla/Corbis)

Long renowned for its technological talent, India is now taking its ingenuity out of this world — literally. Make way, universe: There's a scrappy new contender in the space race.

Last November, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the country's first-ever Mars Orbiter Mission, or Mangalayaan — Hindi for "Mars Craft." Weighing about 1.5 tons and measuring roughly the size of a refrigerator, the unmanned, gold-foiled probe is expected to reach the red planet's orbit in September, around the same time as NASA's MAVEN satellite.

Although designed to show that India has the technological capability to reach Mars, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also spend 6 to 10 months conducting a series of scientific experiments, including scoping the atmosphere for methane — a sign that the planet might support life.

That's assuming all goes well. So far, two-thirds of Mars missions have fizzled. If ISRO succeeds, it would be the first Asian space program to join the elite Mars explorers club, which includes the Soviet space program, the European Space Agency and NASA. Then again, it's not the first time ISRO has defied expectations; its Chandrayaan-1 probe is credited with discovering water molecules on the Moon in 2009.

Even more impressive? MOM's shoestring budget: $75 million, or roughly one-tenth the cost of NASA's MAVEN Mars mission. From its cost effectiveness to its launch strategy, MOM has been hailed as a model of what may be India's greatest talent — a kind of frugal ingenuity, or jugaad, as it's known locally.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced MOM's approval in August 2012, giving ISRO engineers just 15 months before the interplanetary launch window — the period of time when Mars and Earth would be ideally aligned for MOM to reach its target.

How did ISRO accomplish so much, so fast, so cheap? Besides earning less than American engineers, MOM team members were "schedule-driven to the extreme," ratcheting their typical 18-hour workdays up to 20 during the launch period, ISRO chairman Kopillil Radhakrishnan told Forbes.

Equipment-wise, ISRO made do with what they had. Lacking a rocket with enough thrust to fire the probe directly out of Earth's atmosphere, ISRO engineers devised a clever "slingshot" strategy: They directed the rocket to circle Earth for a month, when it would have gained enough velocity to break free from Earth's gravitational pull and cruise toward Mars.

Since India's main goal is just to get to Mars, the probe's scientific instruments are also simple, and therefore inexpensive. Weighing just over 30 pounds, they'll snap color photographs, search for signs of water and map the planet's surface composition.A special sensor will look for methane, which could indicate the presence of bacteria — "a hot topic," said Janet Luhmann, MAVEN's deputy principal investigator.

While ground-based telescopes and Europe's Mars Express orbiter have detected methane, NASA's Curiosity rover hasn't found any.

MOM's scientific finds probably won't be earth-shattering, but it should "provide some interesting measurements," Luhmann said. While the scientific gains remain to be seen, "the gains from the technology and industry perspective have already been put into motion," said Smita Srinivas, director of Columbia University's Technological Change Lab.

Besides contracting with Indian firms to build the majority of the spacecraft, ISRO has also helped these companies build a reputation as precision parts suppliers. "That could be a huge boost in having them compete in world trade," she said.

MOM has also been a "source of great pride" for many Indians, she added. Hundreds gathered to witness the liftoff and many more tuned in to the live broadcast. "I think it's charming that ISRO has been an organization people can be proud of when it's quite low-key," she said. "People will ask, 'If they can do it, why can't others?'"

If MOM succeeds, it could boost India's international prestige. But some question the logic of a country plagued with poverty on Earth allocating millions in public funds to exploring space. Economist Atanu Dey, author of "Transforming India," believes the sense of pride in the mission stems from a misguided belief that "if we send a mission to Mars, that means we're a developed country," he said. Indians "don't want to feel like citizens of a backwater country." He argues that the Mars mission funds should have been spent on pharmaceuticals, solar energy and other technology that could have directly benefited Indians. "We can't afford window dressing," he said.

Beyond India, MOM could ignite a burgeoning space race. With ISRO gearing up for a second lunar mission and China planning a manned lunar mission after the Chang'e 3 rover's successful landing last month,

"The interest is there," Luhmann said. "The question is which nations will come up with the needed resources … to pursue it."

So will a successful Mars orbit mean one giant leap forward for India? It may be months or years before we know the answer. For now, we'll turn our gaze skyward to a dark horse that suddenly made the space race a lot more interesting. is a USA TODAY content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage from around the Web. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.


Related Content

TCLab's new postdoctoral scholar Jose Ribiero and Smita Srinivas are building a program on how technological learning is manifested in three countries. We know that economic growth and concerns of employment are both linked to technological learning, but we have some hunches about why economic theory doesn't take us far enough in appreciating why the links between industry and agriculture manifest in particular ways.

With some two-thirds of India’s GDP coming from the urban areas, cities are the driving force of the country’s economy. This trend is set to increase as the country undergoes a massive urban transformation where, within a span of thirty years, its urban population is expected to double - from 288 million in 2000 to 590 million by 2030 – making up some 40 percent of India’s people. How India manages this urbanization - the second largest in the world after China’s - will largely determine the shape of the future for its more than a billion people.



What the candidates in India’s general election are ignoring 12/05/14  By Smita Srinivas

India’s manufacturing and agricultural productivity needs serious attention right now. Yet, remarkably, prominent Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) candidates have said precious little about it on their campaign trails.

The Necessary Elements of African Health and Health Industries.

Mackintosh, Banda, Tibandebage and Wame (Eds) and Chapter authors discuss the complexities and necessary conditions for better health for Africans.