It is a stunning achievement for the Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, to have got the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, successfully into orbit at its first attempt. In the process, the space agency performed a sequence of formidably difficult tasks. First, it calculated and executed a complex slingshot trajectory where the craft swung around the Earth several times in order to generate speed by using the planetary gravity field. Then, Isro had to wake up long-dormant systems and engines, and program a delicate series of remote manoeuvre to be performed autonomously while the craft operated off battery power on the dark side of Mars. Given a radio lag of 12 minutes, the apparently seamless command of telemetry it is now displaying is, in itself, remarkable.
However, too much is being made of the mission being performed on a shoestring. First, accounting standards are not the same across agencies such as Isro and, say, the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration. If the same standards were applied, the Mars orbiter would have cost much more than the stated Rs 450 crore, since the salaries of dedicated personnel, and other such costs, would have been attributed to the mission. However, it is undoubtedly true that the MOM did cost less than any previous mission to Mars. Also, to some extent, Isro learnt from the failures of prior Mars missions by other agencies. It knew some of the mistakes it had to avoid and that helped in getting things right at first go.
But the "cheapness" was forced upon Isro because of earlier failures. The smaller, older Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) had to be deployed, rather than the more powerful Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), because Isro had failed to stabilise the GSLV's cryogenic technology in time to launch into a favourable Earth-Mars window. The payload for the Mars orbiter had to be considerably reduced as a result. The trajectory also became more complicated because the PSLV lacks the power to take a more direct route. A GSLV-based Mars mission would have cost more. But it could have carried a much bigger payload, and it could have reached Mars faster. This is significant, given Isro's desire to break into the big league in terms of satellite launches. The commercial market is interested in big satellites with larger payloads. The GSLV can put 2,500-kg satellites into the geosynchronous orbit. The commercial market is often interested in above 3,000-kg ones. So Isro needs to scale up these capabilities. Selling the mission as "cheap" only draws attention to the things that Isro has not yet done.
Remember, also, the next stage of the mission has just begun. More than just the results of five scientific experiments, the robustness of equipment design and the data-gathering will be crucial; experience will drive planning for the second Isro lunar mission, Chandrayaan II. The pay-offs in the commercial satellite market will be big, with the proviso that Isro must scale up. But above all, this mission provides inspiration. It raises the profile of space technologies, and it raises India's profile in those domains. More bright young Indians will now be interested in that area. That pay-off is long-term, and it cannot be easily quantified. But it is huge.