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Reflecting on the success of Mars Orbiter Mission

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

24-09-2014 11:23 CDT

Topics: Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), mission status

With the exhilarating arrival of Mars Orbiter Mission today, India has joined the ranks of interplanetary nations. Actually, you could argue that India's been interplanetary ever since Mars Orbiter Mission departed Earth's gravitational influence. Every time I try to compose a simple statement about what Mars Orbiter Mission means, I find it difficult to state clearly what makes India's accomplishment so special. Last night, caught up in the enthusiasm, and having spent an hour hearing it from ISRO's webcast, I tweeted this:

This statement is only barely correct, and there are a lot of asterisks. Most especially: What about Mars Express? To discount its achievement because ESA is not a "country" is really a slight to the accomplishment of ESA and Mars Express, ESA's first interplanetary orbital mission. The only two previous ESA planetary science missions were the Giotto Halley flyby, and the SMART-1 lunar orbiter, which, like Chandrayaan-1 did for ISRO, gave ESA the experience necessary to attempt its first solo interplanetary mission. I have seen some people arguing that Mars Express wasn't fully successful because of Beagle 2, but that's really not fair; Beagle-2 was a failed add-on to an orbital mission that has been incredibly successful by any measure. Another points out Mars Express didn't depart on an ESA launcher (it was a Soyuz). People in my Twitter mentions are also busily arguing about whether, in fact, NASA succeeded in its first attempt to orbit Mars with Mariner 9. (The question is how you count Mariner 8, which failed to leave Earth, since NASA was launching two identical craft to mitigate against just that risk. Would we consider the Mars Exploration Rover mission a failure if Spirit hadn't launched successfully, but Opportunity had?)

But with all this quibbling about wording I already feel like I've strayed too far from my intended path. I could try a different statement about Mars Orbiter Mission, like it's the first successful Asian mission to Mars, following the failures of Japan's Nozomi and China's Yinghuo-1 (cue the pedants pointing out that the Soviet Union included much of Asia and had several successful orbit insertions), but I think that, too, misses the point. What makes Mars Orbiter Mission so special is not what happened in the past in other countries.

Mars Orbiter Mission was homegrown in India, built by a successful and skilled Indian aerospace establishment, carrying Indian-built instruments and operated out of Bangalore; the main foreign contribution to this mission's success has been the irreplaceable communications services of NASA's Deep Space Network, delivering Mars Orbiter Mission's messages to Earth. I've witnessed such a swelling of pride among the Indians I follow on Twitter, and not the kind of pride created at somebody else's expense, but rather the kind that expands you from inside and makes you walk an inch taller and raise your eyes to distant horizons. India has dared to do something that was previously beyond its reach -- and by daring, and then achieving it, India has expanded its own possibilities.

Just minutes after the spacecraft regained contact with Earth, prime minister Narendra Modi -- who had been visibly present for the whole exciting affair -- delivered a stirring speech, switching every few sentences between English and Hindi, articulating what this accomplishment means for India. His speech touched on many of the usual "dare mighty things" themes: space is difficult and risky; great accomplishments come only after confronting great risk. But he went on to speak to the scientists and engineers, not just to congratulate them, but also to tell them how their exciting accomplishment would inspire young people and future generations. Some quotes, via IBN Live:

"MOM ka Mangal se milan hua (MOM has been united with Mars)....Scientists have made great personal sacrifices to achieve this. Through your achievements, you have honoured our fore-fathers, and inspired our future generations."

Those future generations are, without question, inspired. Here's an open letter to ISRO shared yesterday by a young engineer, Krishna Jagannathan. Some highlights:

I am writing this to express my gratitude for doing what you do, and for instilling a sense of heroism among millions of young people across the country. As an eighteen year old, when I was an electrical engineering undergraduate at IIT Madras, I was lucky enough to witness the first ever launch of the GSLV rocket from Sriharikota on 18 April 2001. No, I will not tell you how I managed to get into Sriharikota on that day! The sight of the rocket belching yellow flames and soaring gloriously into the gray sky is permanently etched in my mind.... Thirteen years hence, I want to thank you for providing that moment of inspiration for that eighteen year old. 

Just remember that every time you send a rocket soaring, there will be thousands of kids (and millions on television) who will crane their necks to watch it go, their own spirit and inspiration soaring to the sky.

And that's why Mars Orbiter Mission is special. What will a newly inspired generation in India accomplish? What "impossible" problems will they attempt to solve next? I look forward to finding out.

 
See other posts from September 2014

 

Or read more blog entries about: Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), mission status

Comments:

Sridhar: 09/24/2014 11:40 CDT

As always, a wonderful post. Thanks for keeping us updated on the mission, and for the commentary. It's mission accomplished on the engineering part of the mission. Now on to monitoring the science part of the mission, which is interesting even if small. The first images should be coming in any moment now.

Boldz: 09/24/2014 11:49 CDT

The failures that US, Russia and others helped ISRO in executing a successful mission. I really want to know what are those items that ISRO might have learned from previous mistakes/unknowns. If some one care to share, it will be really helpful. Also is there a habit of sharing knowledge between organizations.

Venkat: 09/24/2014 12:24 CDT

Thanks for a great post Emily. This is a truly inspiring success story from ISRO and will inspire me to achieve which we believe in. As a Roosevelt once said "Believe you can and you're halfway there", I guess this is again n again proved from these kind of missions. Thanks Venkat

Sameer: 09/24/2014 03:21 CDT

Thanks Emily for all the coverage of the Mars Orbiter Mission on the Planetary Society blog. When I was a child, reading books about NASA, the Gemini and Apollo missions inspired me to study science and engineering. I think this achievement by ISRO will similarly inspire a whole new generation of Indians. I do feel that we are standing on the shoulders of giants and we should acknowledge that. This includes all the luminaries of ISRO - Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and others but also the international space community from which ISRO learned a lot and without whom it would have been difficult if not impossible to conduct such a complicated mission. I fully understand the pride and sense of achievement but I do think we ought to tone down some of the jingoism. Space exploration should be more about collaboration than competition. I am especially irked by the cost issue. People have been throwing around the cost number without actually trying to understand whether it is a fair comparison or not (it's not!).

Vijay: 09/24/2014 10:52 CDT

Emily, I am really amazed that you were 'there' during India's MOM moment yesterday and your tweets were extremely gratifying. You have accurately described what it means to an Indian. To add to a comment on your blog, even my journey towards space was initiated by watching the Apollo Moon Landing movie at the American Cultural Centre here in 1969. There were long queues awaiting a chance to watch the movie and it ignited a fierce desire in me to learn more. As he said, watching rockets take off leads to future achievements. Hope Indian space efforts will feature more in your impeccable and highly detailed blog, which I read most religiously.

Free young: 09/24/2014 11:11 CDT

Some peoples are always criticizing that how India can spend $74 million when millions of peoples are still in slum can't afford to gain $1 a day. But in reality this $74 million is mere a 0.038% of total GDP of India and is spending billions of rupees every year to get away from poverty and is succeeding to some extend. This space program has its own merit, it earned 40 million euro last year by launching 14 foreign satellites.

premkudva: 09/25/2014 04:28 CDT

Well if the PSLV rocket had failed to launch, or not inserted MOM into the correct orbit, or if MOM had failed to enter heliocentric orbit, and finally if MOM had failed to enter Mars orbit, then India's first attempt would have been called a failure. So taking this into count Mariner 1 the first attempt is indeed a failure.

Arbitrary: 09/25/2014 05:10 CDT

Two things are great with this: 1) A billion+ English speakers are running a civilian space program for planetary science. MOM is designed as a test of what is to come. 2) Cheap space. Costs are only 1/9 of MAVEN, just its launch cost was about 3 times as the entire Indian mission (if the numbers around are reliable). If they find methane on Mars, like they found water on the Moon, it would be sensational. At least science will be settled on that controversy.

lodaya: 09/25/2014 08:30 CDT

There was a post on the Rosetta blog saying something to the effect that "I am proud to be a European (even though I am British)". Mr Modi mentioned South Asia, it would be good if India uses science to bring South Asia together.

Gopi krishna: 09/25/2014 11:38 CDT

Definitely India's Mom is cheaper but comparing with maven and saying it's just 1/10 may not be OK, as the pay loads are different, mission periods are different and also the target orbits are different making maven heavier and thus costlier. So cost comparison must be made after considering all these factors to know how cheap Mom actually is.

Emily Lakdawalla: 09/26/2014 03:10 CDT

Thanks everyone for your kind comments!

Torbjörn Larsson: 09/29/2014 04:24 CDT

I'm so happy for India and Asia!

juvva: 09/30/2014 10:01 CDT

Mars Express of ESA was launched by a Russian LV, which further strengthens the Indian claim regarding first nation, given that the LV is a important part of a mission and also significantly risky ( if not the most risky ) phase of the mission.

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