BANGALORE, India — While India’s recent launch of a spacecraft to Mars was a remarkable feat in its own right, it is the $75 million mission’s thrifty approach to time, money and materials that is getting attention.
Just days after the launch of India’s Mangalyaan satellite, NASA sent off its own Mars mission, five years in the making, named Maven. Its cost: $671 million. The budget of India’s Mars mission, by contrast, was just three-quarters of the $100 million that Hollywood spent on last year’s space-based hit, “Gravity.”
“The mission is a triumph of low-cost Indian engineering,” said Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist and a professor at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research.
“By excelling in getting so much out of so little, we are establishing ourselves as the most cost-effective center globewide for a variety of advanced technologies,” said Mr. Narasimha.
India’s 3,000-pound Mars satellite carries five instruments that will measure methane gas, a marker of life on the planet. Maven (for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), weighs nearly twice as much but carries eight heavy-duty instruments that will investigate what went wrong in the Martian climate, which could have once supported life.
Launch media viewer
“Ours is a contrasting, inexpensive and innovative approach to the very complex mission,” said K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, in an interview at the space agency’s heavily guarded Bangalore headquarters. “Yet it is a technically well-conceived and designed mission,” he said. Wealthier countries may have little incentive to pursue technological advances on the cheap, but not a populous, resource-starved country. So jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters.
“If necessity is the mother of invention, constraint is the mother of frugal innovation,” said Terri Bresenham, the chief executive of GE Healthcare, South Asia, who is based in Bangalore. GE Healthcare has the largest research and development operations in India and has produced low-cost innovations in infant health, cancer detection and heart disease treatment.
In India, even a priority sector like space research gets a meager 0.34 percent of the country’s total annual outlay. Its $1 billion space budget is only 5.5 percent of NASA’s budget.
ISRO has learned to make cost-effectiveness a daily mantra. Its inexpensive but reliable launch capabilities have become popular for the launches of small French, German and British satellites. Although the space agency had to build ground systems from scratch, its Chandrayaan moon mission in 2008 cost one-tenth what other nations’ moon shots cost, said Mylswamy Annadurai, mission director.
The most obvious way ISRO does it is low-cost engineering talent, the same reason so many software firms use Indian engineers. India’s abundant supply of young technical talent helped rein in personnel costs to less than 15 percent of the budget. “Rocket scientists in India cost very little,” said Ajey Lele, a researcher at a New Delhi think tank, the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, and author of “Mission Mars: India’s Quest for the Red Planet.”