India Swears Its Redundant, Mega-Priced Mars Probe Is Totally Worth It

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.    


STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images


Kim Jong Un Has Met With Dennis Rodman Twice, Leaders of Countries -- Never

On Oct. 28, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj arrived in Pyongyang for a four day trip, the first known visit of a head of state to North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011. But while Elbegdorj spent his days "meeting various officials and zipping around to Kim Il Sung University, a Pyongyang theater, the Munsu water fun park, the border with South Korea and Kim family mausoleum, among other places," according to The Wall Street Journal, he never met the man himself. Kim, who is not known to have left North Korea since assuming the presidency, has kept up an unbroken record of never having a meeting with another head of state. (Perhaps he's met with another head of state -- if so, the meeting has remained private.)

Becoming the first head of state to visit North Korea made sense from a Mongolian perspective, said Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia expert at the University of British Columbia. Sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia heeds to a "third neighbor policy:" its trying to expand its relationship with countries outside those countries orbits, like the United States, several European nations, and Japan. There's a sense in Mongolia, Dierkes says, that the country's relatively close relationship could be valuable in its dealings with other regional powers. 

Elbegdorj probably expected to meet with Kim on his visit. But then for some reason, Kim declined. Perhaps he's saving up for a higher profile target, like a (highly improbable) meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, or an even unlikelier phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama -- which Dennis Rodman, who has met with Kim twice, says the leader wants. Kim's father, the reclusive President Kim Jong I, met with world leaders including then South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others. Kim's grandfather, the gregarious President Kim Il Sung, met with dozens of world leaders during his 45 years in power.

But Kim appears to be the only serving head of state to never have met with another foreign leader. Mullah Omar, the titular leader of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, doesn't seem to have met with any foreign heads of state while in office, either --but I can't think of any other 20th century leaders who have done so.

Am I missing anyone? Let me know in the comments.