India sends spacecraft to Mars for less than 75% of 'Gravity' film budget

A few years ago I was told secondhand (so grain of salt and all) that the cost of living is so low that one could live quite comfortably on $5 USD a month. So for the price of a pair of designer jeans or a AAA video game title, you could manage for a year without trouble.

Given that there’s no reason to believe humans will ever fix all our messes, your question really amounts to “why pursue scientific knowledge for knowledge’s sake?” There are practical answers to this question (i.e., we can’t always predict how new knowledge might benefit us until we have said knowledge) but it’s also a matter of philosophy.

There were few tangible reasons for Galileo or Kepler to invest so much time and energy into their telescopes; it’s not as if they could have foreseen a day when a heliocentric model of the solar system paved the way for man-made satellites which could revolutionize communication. And the 17th century certainly had its share of messes. So were those resources “wasted?” I would argue not.


According to the KISS study, the cost for a future mission to identify and return a 500 ton asteroid to low earth orbit is ~$2.6 billion USD, ignoring the costs to develop the infrastructure necessary to process the materials in the asteroid (“Asteroid usage”, 2012). However, Planetary Resources estimates that a single 30 meter long platinum-rich asteroid could contain $25 to $50 billion USD worth of platinum at today’s prices (Klotz, 2012). Clearly, once the proper infrastructure is in place, there is potential for significant profit. Currently, research into the feasibility of human and robotic missions to asteroids is being conducted by both governmental organizations (JAXA, NASA) and private companies (Planetary Resources).

So yeah, if we shoot for the eighth rarest element on earth, and if we get lucky and find an asteroid that is “platinum-rich” (presumably they mean made almost entirely of the stuff), and if we ignore infrastructure costs, then sure… we can get it into low-earth orbit.

…then what? More rockets to send more machinery to mine it while in orbit, then even more rockets to bring down the material shipload by shipload? Or maybe just try to bring the whole asteroid down to the surface without it exploding in the atmosphere? What good is a 500 ton asteroid stuck in low orbit?

And who is going to be okay with the orbital path it ends up in? Who will accept the dangers of this cockamamy plan and allow this theoretical pure-platinum asteroid to be put into orbit over their territory? This is NIMBY on a literal cosmic scale. Who will be responsible if something goes wrong and a 500 ton asteroid deorbits over a major metropolis, spewing an inferno of toxic heavy metals? Or maybe just into an unpopulated expanse of our dwindling virgin wilderness, if we’re “lucky”? Maybe the ocean, since that covers most of the earth’s surface? This is an ecological nightmare waiting to unfold, to say nothing of the political entanglements.

Then there’s the economic aspects to worry about. Sure, a 500 ton “platinum-rich” asteroid could possibly pay for the cost of retrieving it… at current prices. Then those prices go straight down the crapper, because you just flooded the market, drove supply through the roof, and plowed relative demand into the ground. So essentially it’s a one-shot get rich quick scheme for whomever can convince some other sap to fund the project, and not a sustainable operation.

Then there’s the question of what we DO with that platinum. You know what the majority of our industrial usage of platinum is? Catalysis. Yeah, not exactly what you would call an amazingly useful metal. To be honest, almost all of its value is in it being a rare commodity - and bringing in 500 tons of the stuff is going to destroy that rarity. (For comparison, in 2012 the global production of platinum was 179 tons.)

And you know what the BEST part about your “MIT citation” is? The authorship. You’re basing your argument off the work of a bunch of college freshmen taking part in a feel-good teamwork and problem solving seminar.

Conversely, how much of the budget of Gravity was spent in India? I know the 2D to 3D conversion was done by an Indian company.

Here’s the thing though, @xeni - Gravity wasn’t made in India.


Well, yeah. A lot of which are still lying undiscovered here on Earth. Just under millions of tonnes of water.

Yes, the stats on successful mars missions are grim.

Curiously, in the recent past, all international media stories about space research being conducted in India are almost always suffixed with the obligatory paragraph on the crushing poverty still being faced by millions of Indians and how that contrasts with the millions of dollars spent by India on space research.

I am from Mumbai, India and belong to an income bracket that would be considered “middle class” by Indian standards. And the view from within the country is that most people feel its fantastic that India is spending money on doing genuine space research - this is especially true about educated people. (Remember, literacy rate in India is still not 100 %, about 25-30% of working age adults still cant read or write). The really poor people (and India has a lot of them, unfortunately) are at best indifferent to the whole topic of scientific research.

Personally, I find these media reported contrasts between poverty and space research ludicrous and hypocritical. To say that a country should wait to emerge from the very debilitating jaws of poverty before it even earns the right to dream for the stars (quite literally so) is like telling kids in a school in the poor neighborhood of town that they don’t have the right to dream for ivy league type college education unless they demonstrate first that they are no longer poor. This is illogical and goes against the very basic human quality of optimism.

Especially in India’s case, space research has always been focussed towards solving problems faced by people - thus the focus on weather, telecommunication and cartographic satellites, etc over the past decades. The fruits of such research have been emphatically obvious, for the poorest of this country too; just one case in point being India’s response to Cyclone Phailin. Historically, such a weather disaster typically would result in deaths of a more than thousands of my fellow Indians and it was unbelievably painful to watch this repeat every few years. Only this time, there was Indian weather infrastructure ready with updated satellite imagery, govt. research centres were ready with their interpretation of the expected weather - aiding and helping plan some very massive evacuations. For the first time in my three decades of life in India, things came together and loss of life was in single digits, down by more than a factor of thousand. A grand achievement as much for the local administration of the cyclone affected districts, as for India’s space research agencies.

ISRO, the main space agency in India has already stated many times, that the Mars mission for them is a technology demonstrator, a sort of a training sand box, and the outcome is to get a better grasp on technologies that require interplanetary travel. This is just the next step for ISRO in moving to beyond earth orbit technological capabilities. I wish them best of luck.


People used to ask seagoing explorers the same question. If those explorers had stayed home then the modern world, with all of it’s problems - and all of it’s advancements, like clean drinking water, antibiotics, electricity - would not exist.

Yes, we have problems here at home. The only way out of those problems is to keep exploring and advancing. The alternative is stagnation.


Well said.

uhm… I’m getting tired of that false dichotomy; you know, there are more than two options when you have a budget… and even cancelling all space programs in the whole world, you won’t solve hunger. so please chill…


I think the same exactly thing said by 14th century contemporary about the need to travel to the west to find new roads etc…
apart from that though activity on that sector, can breed new technologies, employment, could shift focus from war related industry to space exploration industry, new weapons to kill the adversaries without fear of payback and more.
It could even produce the technology to solve contemporary problems, Food related issue, overpopulation issues, war related issues and who knows what else.
To add to that, perhaps if we could built a cheap enough method of interstellar travel, we could send away all those whose shit smell foul and keep earth for ourselves. Imagine the possibilities!!!

thank you. I was wondering when soneone would point out the smarmy logical fallacy.

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NASA’s budget: $17.65 billion for 2014
Amount spent in the US on poverty every year: Not a trillion dollars (at least, not on welfare alone), but a hell of a lot more than 17.65 billion dollars. (According to that article, $212 billion on “cash and cash-like programs” [e.g. food stamps] alone).

NASA’s budget is a mere drop in the bucket.


The comparison is flawed, due the missions being vastly different. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is a tech demo, “aiming to develop the technologies required for design, planning, management and operations of an interplanetary mission.”

NASA’s MAVEN probe is a full on mission to explore Mars’ atmosphere and why it disappeared. It has 4x the scientific payload (143lb vs 33lb) and is designed to last twice as long (one year vs six months). To compare the two is silly

Add in that the author of the NYT piece, Saritha Rai, seems to be a pro-India writer specializing in business, not space and the article sounds more like a puff piece, rather a well researched bit of information.

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Its not really a fair to compare the Indian and space programs. They certainly operate with a different level of risk tolerance and I am interested in seeing how it turns out. NASA could use perhaps a little more risk vs cost tradeoff, but the level of risk the Indians take would not be tolerable. I worked with people who worked with India on Chandrayaan-1. It failed less then halfway through its mission life… and the Indians responded by declaring victory. It had several other problems along the way. A typical NASA science mission tends to outlive its planned mission lifetime.
Reliability is expensive. Screenig parts, testing boxes, testing subsystems, testing spacecraft, tracking, paperwork, design reviews, more design reviews…

Well, I guess I could get by for $120k a year. Anyway, all things being equal, I’d not choose the guy who’s in it for the money.

It’s not about ‘being in it for the money’, or that 120k is a low salary, just that for a job of that responsibility it seems very low given what engineers in industry get paid.

Uh… no. No one asked seagoers that question. You’d have to be an imbecile to ask that question.

Humanity has known the value of sea based trade and travel since time immemorial. The ancient Chinese famously sent out expeditions of massive fleets purely to make contact with new nations, establish new relationships, and start new trade routes. Islam spread from the Arabian peninsula all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia via sea travel. The Mediterranean has always been a mix of cultures interacting through ships, often to an astounding degree, influencing each other, waging wars, trading religious and philosophical views, etc.

No, sailors always knew there were more things to find. They knew there were more people, more resources. And even when they thought there weren’t new regions of the world to find, they still went to sea knowing that if they found a new route to Asia they’d be able to get rich because they knew Asia existed and that it was full of trade goods they could buy and resell for a profit.

In contrast, we know our solar system is barren and empty. There’s no life, there’s certainly no intelligent life. There’s no one to trade with, there’s no food to eat, there’s no valuable spices or other trade goods to bring home. We’ve studied our fellow planets, and they’re all either frozen rocks or boiling seas of toxic, corrosive gases. The distances involved are insane, and the conditions are brutal and will kill you dead at the first wrong turn.

Your comparison to sailing consequently only makes sense if we dream up an equivalent situation - if we were sailing to the Sahara, for example. Except even the Sahara has life, has nomadic tribes, has ever-precious water in a few places. Even with all that, there’s a reason why no one settled in the deep Sahara on any significant scale - they had no reason to. There is nothing of value in that barren waste. Maybe there are some rare earth metals lost in the sand and rocks of the Central Sahara, but no one in their right mind is going to go looking for them - it’s not cost efficient, it’s not rational.

Likewise, no sane person would send ships sailing off into the distance if their every collected scrap of evidence suggested they were sailing into a giant, empty desert - if they had foreknowledge, as we do, of the fact that everything around them in every direction for millions and billions and trillions of miles was devoid of life, environmentally hostile, and of no immediate value.

If Columbus had satellite imaging, and if he lived in a world that consisted only of Western Europe surrounded by nothing but blasted, empty desert clearly visible in his satellite images, he would have said, “Whelp, there goes THAT idea!” and taken up horse racing or something.

There’s a difference between trying to reach a place you know is full of riches via a new route no one has tried before, and looking for something of value on a frozen, atmosphereless rock millions upon millions of miles away.

You are blinded by your pipe dreams of sailing through the stars, lost in some Hollywood fantasy. The reality of space is that it is cold, murderous, and empty. Stop deluding yourself.