ON NOVEMBER 5th, India’s space organisation, ISRO, launced a rocket carrying a small, unmanned spacecraft, the Mangalyaan (“Mars vehicle”). By the end of the month, the orbiter is set to stretch its solar wings and begin a
nine-month trip to Mars. Officially, it will look for signs of methane on Earth’s neighbour. In fact the main concern is rivalry closer to home: to show that India’s space plans are not entirely outclassed by China’s. A successful mission would swell national pride. But as the Mangalyaan begins its journey, many might wonder how a country that cannot feed all of its people can find the money for a Mars mission. How can poor countries afford space programmes?
India is not the only emerging economy with space ambitions. Nigeria already has a handful of satellites floating around the Earth (though these were launched by others). Depending how you define a space programme, even minnows like Sri Lanka, Bolivia and Belarus have plans of some sort to get space activity under way. By one count, including co-operative efforts between countries but not fully private ones, there are currently over 70 space programmes, though only a dozen of these have any sort of launch capability. China’s programme is advanced: last year it put a woman in space, and in December it will launch its first (uncrewed) lunar mission.
From a distance, India’s extra-terrestrial ambitions might seem like a waste of money. The country still has immense numbers of poor people: two-fifths of its children remain stunted from malnutrition and half the population lack proper toilets. Its Mars mission may be cheap by American (or Chinese) standards, at just $US74m, but India’s overall space programme costs roughly $US1 billion a year. That is more than spare change, even for a near $US2-trillion economy. Meanwhile, spending on public health, at about 1.2% of GDP, is dismally low. What if the 16,000 scientists and engineers now working on space development were deployed instead to fix rotten sanitation? And why should donors bother to help tackle poverty where governments have enough spare resources to think about space? For some countries, at least, decent answers exist to such questions. Trips to the Moon and Mars may well be mostly about showing off. But most space programmes are designed to get satellites into Earth’s orbit for the sake of better communications, mapping, weather observation or military capacity at home. These bring direct benefits to ordinary people. Take one recent example: a fierce cyclone that hit India’s east coast last month killed few, whereas a similar-strength one in the same spot, in 1999, killed over 10,000. One reason for the improvement was that Indian weather satellites helped to make possible far more accurate predictions of where and when the storm would hit. Otherwise, improved data on monsoon rains, or generally shifting weather patterns, can help even the poorest farmers have a better idea of when to plant crops.
Donors may not be mollified (Britain, for example, is winding down its aid to India). But any aid programme has to be justified in the face of other waste, which can be far costlier than space programmes. A bigger problem in India, for example, is that pitifully few people pay tax, partly because so few have formal jobs. As an emerging middle-income country, India should easily have the means to pay for proper public health, as well as the odd jaunt into space. The pity of it all: it does neither as well as it could.
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