Emily LakdawallaSep 24, 2014

Reflecting on the success of Mars Orbiter Mission

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.

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