India's space scientists must be tired, by now, of defending their cosmic ambitions. Though the nation has made a valiant effort to recast itself as a pioneer of space exploration in recent years, it can't seem to get around criticisms of how it spends its money.
The concerns, which India's space agency has often addressed but to no one's satisfaction, is newly relevant in the lead-up to its first Mars mission. As the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) prepares to launch a spacecraft bound for the red planet on Tuesday, many are wondering: How does a country with one of the lowest development levels in the world justify spending on a space program? Most assume that India's space program is fueled by competition with China's, and that India's dream of becoming the first Asian nation to the reach the red planet has more to do with establishing regional dominance than with scientific inquiry.
There may be something to that argument, given that the goal of this Mars-bound spacecraft is to orbit the planet in search of methane -- the presence of which would indicate potential for life. It would be a worthwhile scientific endeavor, if NASA's Curiosity rover hadn't already accomplished it.
Given the perceived redundancy of the mission, many have wondered whether the government should divert funding from its space programs to human development efforts.
Last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered a justification of the nation's oft-critcized investment in speace exploration. "Questions are sometimes asked about whether a poor country like India can afford a space program and whether the funds spent on space exploration, albeit modest, could be better utilised elsewhere," he said. "This misses the point that a nation's state of development is finally a product of its technological prowess."
The space agency's website, meanwhile, bears the same longstanding defense of its programs:
"There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation," it read. "To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the comity of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."
Perhaps critics do make too much of the agency's funding priorities. As the Economist drolly points out, India spends 10 times more money on Diwali fireworks than it did building its Mars-bound rocket.
Regardless of objective or cost, a successful Mars mission would be an astounding feat, as no nation has successfully reached the planet on the first try -- and only the U.S. and Russia have succeeded on subsequent attempts. The AP notes that 23 of 40 total missions to Mars have failed, including those by China in 2011 and Japan in 2003.
K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of India's space agency has accordingly characterized this mission as a "technology demonstration" -- dismissing the notion that it is in competition with China, or anyone else.
Until recently, India's space program tended to focus more on terrestrial problems: developing satellites to predict natural disasters, measure soil erosion and even help fisherman locate fish. In 2009, scientists successfully sent a lunar orbiter to the moon where it discovered evidence of water.If this mission is a success, India will still trail far behind the U.S., Russia and Europe in the global space race, but it will nevertheless be a giant leap forward for Asia.