What the Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM) Means for India
Interview with Rajeswari Rajagopalan by Madison J. Myers
International Affairs Forum: Can you explain what the Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM) is and what the objective of this mission is for India?
Rajeswari Rajagopalan: This is the first interplanetary mission that India has done, because so far India has not been entirely certain on their technological capabilities. These are very complex missions and so far India has never been able to play a part of the interplanetary mission race. However, this technological progression is something that India was likely to do. India had a successful moon mission in 2008, so, technologically speaking, this was India’s natural progression. This mission was bound to happen, but we had a very short window of time to make it happen. It started at the time that the Prime Minister announced the Mars Mission, eighteen months prior. We had a short window of time to get it right, otherwise we would have had to wait for another couple of years before India got that particular orbital slot in order to do this kind of a mission. India was successful in getting a successful product out in the eighteen months allotted.
The objective had a huge number of scientific and technological objectives. For instance, one was to test India’s deep space communication and navigational capabilities. Other simpler objectives are to explore the topographic, mineral and resource layout of Mars and also to identify any signs of life by means of monitoring methane gas. So the mission was a very simple one in terms of its objectives, but what is more important is the technological demonstration by India on this mission. Given the complex nature of this mission and India being the first country to be successful on a mission like this in the first attempt and doing it on a small budget of $74 million where the US mission that set out just two days prior was about $650 million. The fact that India had a very small budget and managed to get it right in the first go is a huge technological demonstration for India. Even the critics that ask if India should really be spending this kind of money on space exploration rather than development when India faces serious problems of poverty, malnutrition, etc., even feel that this is a major milestone for India and will be significant for India’s development.
IA-Forum: Can you elaborate what the significance of this successful mission is for India’s image? Do you believe that the success will help propel Modi into a better light? Do you believe this “technological demonstration”, as you put it, will lead to the betterment of Indian international ties and domestic development?
Rajeswari Rajagopalan: Prime Minister Modi did come into the final phase of the mission when it was being put into orbit. As a result, he made a speech, speaking in English, sending a message to the world that India has done it and publicized and marketed India’s capabilities to the global public. The mission itself does not have an immediate, economic benefit, but at the same time what the mission does create is an image and increases India’s visibility and influence amongst the space community—those that are established as well as the new developing countries just entering the outer space domain. For these countries India becomes a very attractive option for a variety of options.
One is that India, with a small budget, has proven its capabilities. India is also known for its cost effective satellite launches, etc. so now that India has achieved this Mars mission, India’s visibility goes up several times higher and India could become a chief cooperator in terms of space exploration. It also highlights India’s potential for collaboration with major powers; possibly the European Space Agency and NASA and also with newer powers.
At the same time, India has a track record of providing cheap satellite launches, satellite fabrication, transmission data and satellite services. But again I think India needs to improve on a few things before India can actually maximize its opportunity in the commercial domain because we are still working with one satellite launch facility and India has to have three or four facilities before it can actually gain the potential commercial opportunity. There are currently debates on the second and third satellite launch facility, but India has to make a decision on this.
So the first benefit of the Mars Mission is the technological demonstration, the second is the security angle in the Asian space race as India has become the first Asian country to reach Mars. Obviously the benefits of the economic and commercial potential are also significant. It could foster international and regional cooperation with other countries. Just a couple of days back, for example, Bangladesh and India signed a cooperation that included the space domain as well as other areas. China signed a cooperation regarding space development with India, and while I’m not sure how sophisticated that will get, it shows significant improvement toward relations. This in turn provides India an opportunity to foster a sense of cooperation.
IA-Forum: What does this mean to the Indian people? Has there been a renewed hope or energy since its success?
Rajeswari Rajagopalan: There has been a significant amount of visible enthusiasm after the successful Mars mission. It has made every single Indian proud about their country, even those who do not normally look into India’s scientific projects. The fact that we achieved it in such a short time and on such a small, shoe-string budget and there was success in the first attempt has made a significant amount of people very happy in India’s achievements.
This has also sprouted a renewed interest in scientific education. Interest in science and engineering has really taken off in the last few years after the successful moon mission and has increased recently with the success of the Mars mission. People want to know how they can be a part of these missions. So the studies relating to technology and science will get a huge boost from this success. There is a huge amount of excitement and a huge encouragement for scientific study.
IA-Forum: What do you think is next for India? What are its ongoing projects?
Rajeswari Rajagopalan: One of the things we are working on is a human space mission—sending an astronaut out. In that context, India has also been talking with NASA and so even if India does not send an astronaut on its own, we might actually send someone in collaboration with NASA. Otherwise, a project that we need to work on is on our larger space crafts. I do not see any huge projects on the horizon, but there are a huge number of smaller projects. In some of those we are collaborating with the French. We are trying to develop our own large-size vehicles and a couple of tests have already been done. One or two have been successful but one or two have also been failures; so that is one area that we are trying to gain mastery over.
Another area is India’s own GPS - what we call the IRNSS – which is in the making. We are launching this soon. It’s a much smaller system that covers India’s immediate neighborhood. Most importantly, we are developing a couple of military satellites over the next couple years. For the first time, India launched a military satellite for the Navy last year—for naval communications. Next year we are launching one for the Army and one for the Air Force. You will see more of this in the coming years.
IA-Forum: Do you see this project as a representative of India as a whole, developing and becoming more self-reliant?
Rajeswari Rajagopalan: Given the Cold War history, India has always remained slightly apprehensive on depending on other countries for technology or communications, etc. Not that anyone has cut India’s cords anytime in the past, but there is a wariness given India’s past and what it has gone through. When India does have the technological capabilities, India does want to invest in it so that we do not have to depend on other countries in those areas. So yes, it is representative of India being more self-reliant.
Rajeswari Rajagopalan is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. From 2003 to 2007, she was an assistant director at India's National Security Council Secretariat. Previously, she was a research officer at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. Her most recent book is Clashing Titans: Military Strategy and Insecurity Among Asian Great Powers. She received her doctorate in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1999.