Why India Is Going to Mars

If you want to marry in India and are looking for a bride or groom, normally you need to consult an astrologer, to learn whether the position of the planet Mars is favorable on your birth chart. If not, you may find it difficult to get the match of your choice. Lately, some employers have been trying this as well, matching their horoscopes with those of their prospective employees; companies are also comparing horoscopes with their clients for good fortune.

The influence of Mars and the other planets on the life of an average Indian cannot be forgotten, especially this month. On Nov. 5, a Tuesday — Mangalvaar in Hindi, named for the planet Mars — India launched its first mission to the red planet. The day before, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization paid a visit to a temple, to seek the blessings of Lord Venkateswara. If the mission is successful, the Mars Orbiter will study the planet’s atmosphere and mineralogy, map its surface and test for methane, a possible sign of the presence of life.

Despite significant scientific achievements, many Indians are still guided by superstition, which sometimes is reflected in poor decision making. For example, mothers are often blamed if they do not give birth to a male child. As recently as 2009, the government of Karnataka, a southern state, provided funds to temples for performing religious rituals to nullify the so-called evil effects of a solar eclipse (and this is in the state whose capital, Bangalore, is home to the space research headquarters).

At the same time, the common Indian man is drawn to the country’s scientific developments. He is well versed in jugaad — a word we use to describe a kind of traditional, frugal innovation system. The term became popular in the 1990s, and comes from the name of a rural vehicle, designed by villagers who combined an old chassis with an engine commonly used for irrigation pumps. (Today, the Tata Nano car can be seen as an advanced form of jugaad.)

In the years since independence in 1947, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called for creating a “scientific temper” among Indian citizens, the government has been investing in science. India has joined the club of the few countries to have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to waste disposal. It has designed and operated its own satellites. If the Mars Orbiter successfully reaches the vicinity of the planet in September 2014, after 300 days’ journey into deep space, it will make India the first Asian country and the fourth in the world to reach the red planet.

The mission has, however, started an intense debate. While its supporters trumpet its incredibly low cost of around $75 million (a fraction of the cost of a similar American expedition), critics question the logic behind spending any amount when India is dealing with such deep-rooted problems as widespread hunger, poverty and corruption.

One activist, Harsh Mander, said the mission showed a “remarkable indifference to the dignity of the poor.”

But U. R. Rao, a former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, compared the $75 million spent on the mission to the amount Indians spend on Diwali crackers for one day: “For going all the way to Mars, just one-tenth of the money is being spent. So, why are they shouting?”

Part of the reason the mission is so much less expensive is that it is able to take advantage of existing deep space communications systems and navigation support from NASA. But India is becoming known for its low-cost innovations in many diverse fields, including health care, renewable energy, sanitation, mobile technology and tablet computers. Indian scientists like to share this anecdote: “Americans spent millions to develop a pen that will not leak in space, whereas Russians used a pencil!”

In past decades, an impression was formed that truly innovative research had to be expensive, and “frugal” solutions were written off as low-tech products directed at the poor, says Rajnish Tiwari, a senior researcher at the Institute of Technology and Innovation Management at Hamburg University of Technology. The Mars mission shows that frugal innovations can be high-tech and affordable at the same time.

Many have also dismissed the criticisms by pointing out how much India spends on far less productive projects. For instance, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and one of the leading contenders for the post of prime minister in next year’s elections, has announced the erection of a commemorative statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first deputy prime minister, that is expected to be double the size of the Statue of Liberty and to cost a whopping $340 million.

The money spent on the Mars mission is a small investment in the big picture. It is a chance to increase the popularity of science and inspire people from all walks of life, both in India and outside.

We still have a long way to go to counter backward superstitions, but we are making progress. During the total solar eclipse of Feb. 16, 1980, most people were too afraid to even come out of their houses. Leading up to the total solar eclipse of Oct. 24, 1995, however, an awareness campaign was carried out, and as a result, many villagers put on solar-filter glasses and joined the scientists to watch the spectacular celestial phenomenon.

I hope that the Mars mission will bring about a greater interest in learning about science, and an end to many of the superstitions associated with the planet. This does not mean that our brides and grooms need to give up all their old beliefs, as there are many aspects of Indian tradition worth preserving. But this too, is possible, for India is a country of contrasts. We know how to embrace two ideas at once — tradition and science, frugality and innovation — just as we can deal with issues like poverty at the same time as taking a giant leap into interplanetary space.

Manoj Kumar Patairiya, the editor of the Indian Journal of Science Communication and co-editor of the book Sharing Science.

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