Funding the Mars Mission: What did this milestone cost India?

Funding the Mars Mission: What did this milestone cost India?
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi meeting scientists at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network in Bangalore before the Mars Orbiter spacecraft successfully entered the Mars orbit.

The majority of Indians have not yet stopped talking about the accomplishments of the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan. But if you want to find naysayers, you do not have to go outside India to find a group of diehards questioning the logic of India spending Rs450 crores (S$94 million) on this mission.

You have heard their arguments before and I do not have to repeat them here. To them it does not matter that it was 27 per cent cheaper than a Hollywood blockbuster, or that it was nearly one-tenth the cost of NASA's Maven spacecraft. Or if you compare with the much talked about Airbus A380, you can get five Mangalyaans and have some change left for the price of this fancy aircraft.

Talking of aircrafts and airlines, India's national carrier Air India lost Rs5,000 crores (S$1 billion) in just 2013-14. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would have sent 11 Mangalyaans for that kind of money. In fact, in the corresponding period ISRO's total budget was only Rs4,000 crores, 20 per cent less than Air India's loss. Air India's accumulated losses are in the region of US$5-6 billion (S$6 billion). You do the math on what ISRO can do if it gets the kind of money Air India loses.

In my opinion, ISRO can fund its own Mangalyaan II, if it starts being as creative as it is frugal. It needs no foreign consultants or marketing companies to advise. The opportunities and ideas are right at its doorstep.

Many Indians who have had a brush with Indian arranged marriages, and horoscope-matching exercises that precede it, would have heard of "Mangal Dosha" or "Manglik". In simple terms, in Indian astrological charts there are 12 houses in a horoscope. If planet Mars is placed in any of the six houses out of these 12, the person is supposed to suffer from ill effects of Mars.

Indian astrologers have a field day instilling fear in every second person that they have mangal dosha in his or her horoscope. They sell beads, talismans, offer to do pujas to please planet Mars. ISRO can offer to take people's prayers and offerings direct to Mars! For a fee, of course. It does not have to compete with the astrologers. Let them be the brokers and get a 5 per cent sales commission. They will happily promote ISRO's services.

That is not the only revenue model available to ISRO. There is a home-grown money-making, marketing machine that has commercialised every little movement and milestone. I am talking about IPL, the Indian Premier League cricket tournament. In the same year that Mangalyaan was launched, Pepsi paid US$72 million (nearly the cost of the Indian Mars mission) to IPL for sponsorship rights. The second IPL franchise auction in 2010 for just two teams fetched US$703 million, an amount that can easily pay for a NASA mission to Mars.

ISRO can sell naming rights for the second Mars mission, the launch pad, the rockets, the motors and the orbital manoeuvres. You will agree that current names like First Launch Pad, PSLV rocket, launch window, altitude-raising orbital manoeuvres (seven of them), trans-Mars injection, four trajectory corrections, liquid apogee motor, will all sound a lot more exciting with names of Korean washing machine brands, global cola drinks, Indian mobile operators, and real estate developers, tagged in front.

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