In November of 2013, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its first mission to Mars. The achievement was met with mixed feelings.
For many Indians, it was a moment of immense national pride. India proved itself capable of working with and persevering through the technological challenges of the 21st century. For others, it was a source of unmitigated fury. How could a nation with so much poverty spend so much money on something as irrelevant as a space mission?
This is a generalization made for unpacking.
The mission to Mars cost India 74 million dollars. To put this in perspective, this is about 21 percent of the $3.5 billion dollars allotted to Meal Scheme, a project aimed to improve nutrition among school-age children. About the same amount, $2.5 billion, was given to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
The budget for the mission is a significant fraction of all the numbers listed above; it could do a great deal of good in any one of the programs. Though it is important to understand this, it is also necessary to recognize that the space program works alongside other social initiatives; the existence of a space program does not mean that resources for poverty-reduction are lacking.
This mentality is inaccurate because of the utility of many projects run by the agency. ISRO satellites report weather — floods, droughts, cyclones and landslides. They collect information on natural resources; information that is essential to agricultural and conservation efforts. With remote-sensing technology, researchers have even been able to map out prospective groundwater sites.
As to the mission itself, the strongest defense has been anecdotal. When America reached the moon, 13.8 percent of Americans were below the poverty line. When Russia put Sputnik in orbit, the nation was recovering from Stalinist policies. When China sent the first woman into space, 100 million Chinese were living in poverty.
Yes, the money could have been spent elsewhere, but should it have been? Supporters of the mission argue that the presence of poverty should not stop scientists and researchers from making their own mark on their field.
– Olivia Kostreva