The Financial Express

Economics of India's mission to the moon

| Updated: September 19, 2019 21:25:22

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India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III-M1 blasts off carrying Chandrayaan-2 from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, India on July 22, 2019.             —Photo:  Indian Space Research Organisation Handout via Reuters India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III-M1 blasts off carrying Chandrayaan-2 from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, India on July 22, 2019.            —Photo:  Indian Space Research Organisation Handout via Reuters

The USA created a headline story in the sixties by sending humans to the moon. However, Russia (then USSR), Japan, China, and the European Space Agency made visits to the moon via probes. India's Chandrayaan-2 was on a mission to place India in this elite space club. Despite its failure, the frugal cost of this mission has created curiosity. The direct cost of $142 million for this mission is far less than the cost of the Apollo mission of the USA. The cost of the first satellite of Bangladesh is even two times higher, estimated to be $330 million. But what does the mission to the moon bring on the ground?

At the outset, the question could be: why is India spending money in reinventing the wheel? There is a saying: "don't reinvent the wheel." Ironically, the wheel is getting better as well as cheaper due to a series of reinvention. The second question could be: how did India keep the cost of the mission so low? Is it India's success of frugal innovation? In attaining such a success, what are India's innovations to get the job done at a fraction of the cost of the Apollo mission? It took several years for India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to turn the idea into spacecraft, mission control and launching. It appears that the direct cost for the mission was $142 million. But this mission significantly benefited from existing facilities, engineering capability, and management competence that  ISRO has been building over the years. There have been momentous cost components in nurturing this capability since 1962. Once this factor is taken into consideration, the actual cost of India's mission could be significantly higher than $142 million, as ISRO's budget in 2019-2020 is above $1.5 billion.       

In the 1960s, NASA spent $25 billion for the Apollo programme --equivalent to over $100 billion today. The question could be why did the Apollo cost so much money to the USA? Did the scientists and engineers do a sloppy job?

In fact, in the 1960s, many of the needed technologies were at a very early stage of development. The Apollo mission had to finance a number of R&D programmes over almost a decade in maturing guidance, navigation, propulsion, and control (GN&C) technologies. Apollo programme considerably strengthened USA's national R&D system, including adding sharp research edge to academic programmes. For example, the contribution of Draper and Lincoln laboratories located in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) played pivotal roles in the Apollo mission. In the absence of the contribution of these laboratories in the development of inertial sensors, software, uncrewed vehicles and other systems for the GN&C, Apollo mission could not have succeeded. Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has long been associated with robotic missions. The development made in the 1960s contributed to global space science, technology and engineering capabilities. Many of the commercial components having root in those hard-earned technologies are now available at a small fraction of the initial cost of development. Such development paved the way of ISRO mission. It significantly benefited from the R&D sponsored by NASA in the 1960s. It's worth noting that once R&D is done in developing a new machine or product, the cost of copying it is usually a small fraction of the initial R&D budget.  

Other than having membership in the elite group of countries or making a "giant leap" for mankind, what else is there in the mission of going to the moon? So far, the real state of the moon does not offer any potential of creating economic benefit to humans. Starting from the very low gravity, lack of oxygen to the scarcity of water, nothing on the moon appears to be supportive for human life. Even if the cost of transportation to the moon is brought down to zero, there seems to be no economic incentive. The political goal of the USA in the 1960s was to stimulate the morale of American citizens in the era of the cold war. It was a mission to prove that America was superior to Russia in the space race, triggered by Sputnik. To succeed in this mission, America acquired a significant edge in critical technologies. This edge powered America's commercial success over decades in major areas like commercial and military aircraft, software, computer, satellite communication, submarines, wireless and cellular communications, and strategic and tactical missiles. Such achievements have led to the formation of mega economic success stories such as Silicon Valley in the West and Route 128 in the East.

So far, India's space mission appears to be limited within the boundaries of ISRO. The success of Bengaluru's IT industry does not seem to be a spin-off of India's space programme, nor the recent surge in startups appears to have a nucleus in ISRO's R&D programmes. Although ISRO has contributed to India's capability of designing and launching satellites into the orbit, so far universities or Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) have not been strongly integrated with the ISRO's activities. Moreover, a large number of local contractors have not been nurtured to carry out R&D and engineering works to support ISRO's mission. But certainly, ISRO's performance in attaining or edging up India's science, technology and engineering capability is far better than just paying to foreign firms in designing satellites or rovers and launching them. In addition to remote sensing, communication and broadcasting, ISRO may go further by integrating space programmes in economic activities on the ground. For example, Canada participated in the space robotics programme, notably to support NASA's shuttle and international space station programmes. Canada's objective was to acquire advanced robotics technology capability for addressing competitiveness. In attaining this objective, Canada did not keep the space programme confined within the boundary of the national space agency in Montreal. Instead, space robotics programme outsourced most of the technology development and integration programmes to universities and private firms. Such an approach has been leveraging space robotics programmes in improving the competitiveness of manufacturing as well as natural resource extraction on one hand and on the other, high calibre human resources built through academic research has been contributing to innovations for coping up as well as leveraging the fourth industrial revolution.    

India's mission to the moon has been to absorb and update space engineering capability. It's the journey of assimilating and fine-tuning through a series of reinvention. This should be taken seriously by other developing countries. Buying a space flight or making a copy of what exists does not create capability with an edge. It's about acquiring the capability of absorbing and redesigning to make it better as well as cheaper, which is the key to success.  We hope India will scale up the journey of the space mission linking the industrial economy, which will be turning whatever India is making now better as well as cheaper through redesigns.

M Rokonuzzaman PhD is an academic and researcher on technology, innovation ands policy. [email protected]


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