India’s Mars mission launches Asian space race
India is bidding for global prestige with an ambitious unmanned voyage to Mars. But with hundreds of millions of citizens locked in poverty, does the government have its priorities wrong?
‘Lift-off,’ the announcer declared; and amid a smattering of applause from assembled journalists, the Indian rocket heaved itself away from the ground and up into Earth’s near orbit. With it goes a module the size of a small car. Its destination: Mars.
The mission’s success is far from guaranteed. Of the 51 attempts that have been made so far to send a spacecraft to Mars, just 21 have been completed. Last January, China’s first effort to reach Mars ended in early failure when the rocket crashed back to Earth two months after its launch.
And this is one reason why India’s government is so keen for this mission to succeed: it would be the first time that the country has beaten its powerful Chinese neighbours to a major landmark of space exploration.
The government insists that its objectives are scientific. But few doubt that national pride is also at stake. As a fast-growing economy which some economists tip for superpower status, India is keen to make a global impression. A flourishing space programme would win the nation prestige and demonstrate its technological capabilities to rivals like China and Pakistan. And at £70 million, the mission costs only a tenth of the money that NASA spent on a similar voyage.
Yet even this relatively low price is enough to make the Mars mission controversial. Why? Because in spite of its growing influence and economic power, India still struggles with enormous rates of poverty and deprivation.
Child malnutrition is higher in India than in Eritrea. Around 1.7 million children die every year, and half of those that survive have stunted growth. One in two Indian homes does not have a toilet, forcing many families to defecate outdoors, while a quarter of the population is ‘effectively illiterate’.
It is a country of contradictions. While a large minority of Indians have top educations, sizeable incomes and middle class lives, many more live in dire conditions unheard of in developed nations.
The elephant in the room
Pumping all this money into posturing space programmes is pure vanity, say critics of the government. India shouldn’t even be thinking about grandiose missions and global status until it has made sure life is bearable for its own suffering citizens. This, says top economist Jean Dreze, ‘is all part of the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status’.
But the space programme has its supporters too. Of course India must do all it can to relieve poverty, they say, but that doesn’t have to mean sacrificing exciting projects like this: a country where confidence and optimism is booming is better for everyone. ‘If we can't dare to dream big,’ as one government official put it, ‘it would leave us as hewers of wood and drawers of water!’
- Is it wrong for a country where people starve to death to send a spacecraft to Mars?
- ‘Exploration and discovery are the noblest human enterprises of all.’ Do you agree?
- ‘Space voyages are not worth the money.’ As a class, debate this proposition and put it to a vote.
- Make a brief fact file on India, including information about its history, population, culture and economy.
Some People Say...
“Saving a single child from poverty is more important than putting a person on Mars.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Space is nothing but rocks and debris.
- Perhaps. But many scientists believe there could be life out there, and that’s one of the aims of this Indian mission: the spacecraft will scan Mars’s atmosphere for signs that the planet might have once harboured life. But even if you’re not interested in space for its own sake, this rocket matters for us here on Earth as well.
- Really? How?
- Well, it’s part of a growing rivalry between Asian nations that could help shape the coming centuries. And some analysts say that the rocket launch is partly designed to demonstrate India’s military capabilities: the military significance of space is growing, and India will soon have the world’s fourth most powerful army.
- Upon reaching the Red Planet, the Indian spacecraft will enter Mars’s orbit and use sensors to test for methane, a possible sign that the planet may have once harboured life. It will also take photographs of the surface and analyse the Martian atmosphere.
- Before India gained independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan were part of the same country. The terms of the partition are still a source of controversy today, with both nations claiming sovereignty over troubled border regions like Kashmir. Tensions between India and Pakistan are particularly worrying because both are nuclear powers.
- A small and very poor region in East Africa which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Eritrea has an extremely repressive government and struggles to produce enough food to nourish its population, two thirds of whom rely on international food aid.