03/12/2013 08:33 GMT | Updated 01/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Mars is a 'Red' Herring: Why India's Space Programme Is a Global Role Model

The Indian Space Research Organisation has just successfully completed 'the mother of all slingshots' - a critical step in its maiden interplanetary mission, the development pace of which surprised even NASA. If Mangalyaan-1 reaches its destination at the end of a mammoth, c.700 million kilometre journey, India will become the first nation in the world to achieve this remarkable technological feat at first attempt.

Mangalyaan-1 at-a-Glance:

  • A record 15 months from project approval to launch
  • Primarily a 'technology demonstrator' for future Indian interplanetary missions
  • A precursor to ISRO's ambitious solar mission, Aditya-1, in 2015-16

Because India's most sophisticated Diwali rocket is perceived to be an exercise in technological and geopolitical showboating, Mangalyaan-1's headline-grabbing exploits obscure an objective appreciation of what is unquestionably one of the world's greatest single contributors to human development: ISRO, and the Indian space programme.

The fanfare of India's Moon and Mars missions are uncharacteristic of her far meeker post-Independence forebear, which started re-building its scientific base from scratch to focus first and foremost on the re-development of a destitute, battered and largely incapable nation.

"There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose.. We are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society." Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, 'father' of the Indian space programme.

The journey from ISRO's humble beginnings five decades ago - its founders commenced activity in the office of a Kerala bishop in a newly Independent India, launched its first sounding rocket from within a coconut grove, and used bullock carts to transport satellites calibrated in a cattle shed - has resulted in a remarkable series of benefits for more than one sixth of humanity.

Notable Achievements

  • With a 95% success rate, ISRO's PSLV is one of the world's most reliable rocket launch systems
  • ISRO's IRS constellation is the world's largest civilian remote-sensing satellite network
  • A world record simultaneous launch and placement into orbit of 10 satellites in 2008
  • Satellite launch clients include the US, Japan, Germany, Turkey, Korea, the EU and the UK
  • India's maiden moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, detected lunar water in 2008-9
  • Widely regarded as the most cost-effective major space organisation in the world
  • In Development: Hyper-plane-cum-space shuttle; laser and directed-energy ABM systems; high accuracy GPS alternatives

From facilitating America in tracking Hurricane Sandy, to connecting almost a billion Indians with mobile phones, ISRO has been an unheralded hero in India's pursuit of development, as well as in its quest to once again become the civilisational, contributory world power that it had historically been.

The Pan-African e-Network

Conceptualised by former rocket-scientist-turned-President of India, Prof. Abdul Kalam, this elaborate ICT partnership connects the 54 member states of the African Union to each other, facilitating tele-education, tele-medicine, e-governance, disaster management and other applications that utilise ISRO's numerous satellites and applications.

In addition to serving rural citizens across India, Africa, and Asia, ISRO technologies assist millions of farmers better manage their crops, and save thousands of lives through disaster management capabilities:

A Tale of Two Cyclones

  • 1999 - Category 5 Cyclone 05B hits Eastern India: 10,000 deaths
  • 2013 - Category 5 Cyclone Phailin hits Eastern India: c.50 deaths

ISRO has also contributed to the nation - and taxpayer - through a flourishing hi-tech supply chain that increasingly involves the private sector, the creation of tens of thousands of jobs, incalculable knock-on benefits from India's giant telephony and satellite television sectors alone, and profits accrued through its commercial launch activity.

In the process, India's relentless pursuit of cutting-edge space technologies has turned the tired, ill-considered and patronising notion that 'developing nations should not 'indulge' in hi-tech space programmes' on its head. If anything, ISRO has become a global benchmark not only for developing nations, but also for the other major space powers: even NASA and ESA have re-configured elements of their organisational philosophy and operational procedures to emulate ISRO's leaner and more efficient approach, which, contrary to popular perceptions, is not merely attributable to a lower cost base.

A case in point is ISRO's practice of encouraging smaller, parallel, competing teams for the same projects, instead of one large team driven by a centralised organisation. NASA, a far more conservative organisation, emulated this approach to increase its own efficiency.

ISRO's other competitive advantages are derived from broader Indian business and cultural characteristics such as the legendary jugaad (efficient innovation), as well as a militaristic focus on planning and testing, aggressive scheduling and round-the-clock operations - Mangalyaan-1 was launched within only 15 months of project approval, compared to at least 5 years for NASA's similar MAVEN mission, also launched last month.

Mangalyaan-1's c.$75m Budget Equates to:

  • c.15% of NASA's budget for its comparable MAVEN mission
  • 2.1 % of India's c.$3.5bn aid contributions to other nations
  • Less than 2% of the estimated £2.5bn in salaries paid to UK employees by Indian companies
  • 0.3 % of India's $24bn IMF bailout contribution to the Eurozone crisis
  • 0.02% of India's total government expenditure in 2013

ISRO's genii have not only revolutionised the very foundations of global space economics, they have also demonstrated how a space programme can be central - not superfluous - to the development of a nation. India's high decibel entry into deep space exploration is all the more fitting for a country whose ancient scriptures and pioneering ancestors gifted human civilisation with much of the current understanding of our universe and planetary systems that we take for granted today.

Abhaey Singh is the Chairman of Kauzala, and the President of the The Indian Debating Union. He is best known for his talks on India and values-based leadership, and for his popular rap video 'Talk It Out - Debaters' Rhapsody', which promotes civilised debate.