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India's Mars mission ignites debate on ethics

Opponents say money should have gone to the poor
India's Mars mission ignites debate on ethics

Congress Party activists in Kolkota celebrate Tuesday's successful launch (picture: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

Published: November 06, 2013 06:12 AM GMT
Updated: November 05, 2013 08:05 PM GMT

India was celebrating the launch of its mission to Mars on Tuesday as a milestone achievement, but many critics say the US$56 million project is a waste of money in a country rife with poverty.

The rocket carrying the 1,337 kg Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan, blasted off from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) complex in Sriharikotta, Andhra Pradesh, on Tuesday afternoon.

MOM's purpose is to demonstrate India’s technical capabilities by achieving a Mars orbit and to conduct experiments that could determine the possibility of life on the planet, scientists say.

If the spacecraft reaches Mars orbit in September 2014, India’s space agency will become the world's fourth to successfully launch a mission to the Red Planet, after the United States, Europe and Russia.

Many see the mission as evidence of India's scientific prowess, building on the success of its 2008 Chandrayaan-I moon mission, which saw an orbiter launch an impact probe that struck the moon’s south pole.

“This is a giant step forward…. A successful launch will enhance national pride,” a Ministry of Science and Technology official told ucanews.com ahead of the launch.

But while the US$56 million cost of the mission was relatively cheap, critics say it is a flight of fancy when more than 800 million Indians live on less than US$2 a day.

"I do not support money being spent on such projects when so many people are living below the poverty line," says Joseph Xavier, director of New Delhi's Indian Social Institute that works for people's welfare.

"Such an amount of money should have been spent on public welfare schemes such as health care and sanitation," the Jesuit priest said.

One of the pioneers of India’s space program and former ISRO director, G Madhavan Nair, is of the same opinion.

"This much hyped mission is a farce," he told ucanews.com.

This mission "is not going to achieve anything beyond what is already known and is a waste of public money," said the 80-year-old space scientist who joined the ISRO in 1967.

“Sorry to say, there is no meaningful research in the Mars mission,” he said.

Some politicians were also critical of the amount spent on the venture comparing it with money they say was wasted on expensive military enterprises.

"The nuclear race launched some years ago did not help common Indians," said Shailendra Kumar of the Samajwadi Party.

But most people, including religious leaders and social workers have looked beyond the socio-economic aspect and are supportive of the mission, saying it reflects technological progress.

“This project showcases our development in the field of science and technology. This is important for the pride and prestige of our country," said Father Charles Irudayam, a Catholic Church official in New Delhi.

Scientific advancement is needed along with social development, the head of the Indian bishops' office for Justice, Peace and Development said.

“We can develop only when both aspects are taken care of. Science can help social development. Satellites made communication cheaper and accessible to millions of Indians. Technology also helps farmers use new and innovative methods of cultivation," Fr Irudayam said.

“We need both science and development, and government should put stress on advancements that will improve the lives of the poor," Fr Irudayam said.

Scientist Arvind Kashyap from Delhi University believes cost is a non-issue in such missions.

"Science always depends on experiment and it means success and failure but that does not mean you should shy away from scientific efforts. Generally, it is a positive step," he said.

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