x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

India’s Mars rocket is all about prestige

India's countdown to the launch of a Mars rocket raises questions about national priorities.

Can a country where rising onion prices strain millions of household budgets afford to spend 4.5 billion rupees (Dh270m) on a rocket to Mars? Can it afford not to?

The countdown has started for India’s Mangalyaan rocket scheduled to lift off on Tuesday and reach Mars next September. If it gets there, it will make India’s space agency the fourth one to reach Mars, after those of Russia, the US and the EU.

The launch adds an interplanetary dimension to an old Indian debate: what’s the right balance between building technological capacity and feeding the poor? There’s also another question for every current or hopeful space-faring country: what is a space programme for?

Just as the US-Soviet space race that started in the 1960s was a by-product of Cold War rivalry, Mangalyaan might not exist if China did not have its own ambitious space programme. Indeed India’s space agency candidly subordinates the project’s scientific objectives, which are minor, to its technology-development goals.

In other words, this appears to be mainly about national prestige and keeping up with the neighbours. But many observers, domestic and foreign, believe there would be far more prestige in attacking the poverty, inequality, corruption and social woes that still afflict so many Indians.

Projects like this one may also induce richer countries and NGOs to reconsider their foreign aid promises to India. Indeed, India is now a substantial foreign aid donor while still being a net recipient. India’s paradoxes are confusing the idea of what a “developing country” is.

The drive to discover is a cornerstone of human nature; in the long term space exploration is probably inevitable, just as the geographic discoveries of the 15th to 17th centuries were. As we dip a toe in this vast ultimate ocean, there are palpable short- and medium-term rewards: the US-Soviet space race, for example, led to a surge in science and engineering education that created the conditions for many modern technological wonders. Space programme funds are not burnt as rocket fuel; the money produces discoveries, jobs and economic demand here on Earth.

India’s elected government wants a space programme; the decision is theirs to make. To a striking degree, however, the first space race has given way to international space cooperation. Before long India and China, too, may come to understand that the stars shine down on us all.