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Space The Almighty Buck Government Mars NASA Technology

Why India's Mars Probe Was So Cheap 200

schwit1 (797399) writes "Alan Boyle has some interesting thoughts on why it cost India so little, less than the budget of the movie Gravity, to build and send its probe Mangalyaan to Mars: 'The $74 million Mars Orbiter Mission, also known by the acronym MOM or the Hindi word Mangalyaan ("Mars-Craft"), didn't just cost less than the $100 million Hollywood blockbuster starring Sandra Bullock. The price tag is a mere one-ninth of the cost of NASA's $671 million Maven mission, which also put its spacecraft into Mars orbit this week. The differential definitely hints at a new paradigm for space exploration — one that's taking hold not only in Bangalore, but around the world. At the same time, it hints at the dramatically different objectives for MOM and Maven, and the dramatically different environments in which those missions took shape.' Read it all. It gives us a hint at the future of space exploration.
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Why India's Mars Probe Was So Cheap

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  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @09:34AM (#47992599) Homepage Journal

    Honestly, is there no lever the Indian government won't sink to to save money?

    • Honestly, is there no lever the Indian government won't sink to to save money?

      Yea, but what until something goes wrong and Bob on tech support line tells them they need to reinstall Windows. Or MS tech support calls them and tells them "I have been monitoring your computer and you have a reall bad virus that will steal your information. "

  • by joe_frisch ( 1366229 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @09:39AM (#47992649)

    Its not easy to compare costs for projects done by different governments. There are different accounting standards for what is "in" and "out" of the project costs. I know nothing about the rules in India, but in Europe, scientific / engineering labor is not included in the "project". I expect the Indian probe was less expensive than a comparable NASA probe, but maybe not by nearly as large a margin as it seems.

    This doesn't detract from the mission being a great success for India.

    • Its not easy to compare costs for projects done by different governments. There are different accounting standards for what is "in" and "out" of the project costs. I know nothing about the rules in India, but in Europe, scientific / engineering labor is not included in the "project". I expect the Indian probe was less expensive than a comparable NASA probe, but maybe not by nearly as large a margin as it seems.

      This doesn't detract from the mission being a great success for India.

      There's also the quality and precision of the scientific equipment on board. I will have to go look but the missions of these probes are most likely very different and the equipment used could vary greatly based on what fidelity of data they hope to receive. Basically, there are A LOT of factors that could account for the difference in cost. Hell, if Maven has a nuclear power source, that alone could be tens if not hundreds of millions in cost.

  • by Enry ( 630 ) <{ten.agyaw} {ta} {yrne}> on Thursday September 25, 2014 @09:47AM (#47992739) Journal

    The article spells out the differences - the India probe took longer, weighed less, has fewer experiments, and probably won't last long. Meanwhile the NASA probe got there quickly, weighs 4 times more, has twice the number of experiments, and can serve as a communication relay for probes on the ground.

    I can drive across country in a $5000 car, a $50,000 car, or a $500,000 truck. Each of them have different purposes and will get you there in different ways. To say NASA needs to only use the $5000 car isn't in our long term interest.

    • That is a valid point. However, we have to see whether NASA can manage to send the "$5000 car" at the same cost or lower than ISRO. Odds are that the "$500,000 Truck" is going to be way out of reach for ISRO in the next 5 years or so. However, the future might hold more opportunities. Just like SpaceX, there might be entrepreneurial opportunities in India now to provide competition to Antrix (the commercial wing of ISRO) at a purely privatized or a private/public undertaking capacity.

      Prices being driven dow

      • That is a valid point. However, we have to see whether NASA can manage to send the "$5000 car" at the same cost or lower than ISRO.

        What is your logic behind that demand? What if NASA and other space agencies don't see the comparative value in sending the "$5000 car"?

        • by multimediavt ( 965608 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @10:52AM (#47993373)

          That is a valid point. However, we have to see whether NASA can manage to send the "$5000 car" at the same cost or lower than ISRO.

          What is your logic behind that demand? What if NASA and other space agencies don't see the comparative value in sending the "$5000 car"?

          Or how about, the information sent back from a $5000 probe wouldn't give us much insight. We've already sent the cheaper probes. [nasa.gov] India hasn't. People are projecting the U.S. status on other countries that are just now getting objects in orbit and to other planetary bodies like we're all in the same boat. It's like complaining about the cost of a microwave oven when the other guy only has flint and steel.

          • by Enry ( 630 )

            Well, and once you've designed one microwave, building the next one is very cheap since all the research and design has already been done.

          • Just a quick follow up:

            The total cost of the Mariner 4 mission is estimated at $83.2 million. Total research, development, launch, and support costs for the Mariner series of spacecraft (Mariners 1 through 10) was approximately $554 million.

            From http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc... [nasa.gov]

            If you divide the cost up between the missions it averages under $60 million per probe. Cheaper than the Indian probe! That's a much more realistic comparison of scientific programs. Folks, the U.S. did the sub $100 million probes to Mars in the 1970s. India didn't even have a rocket to reach Low Earth Orbit during that decade and only got there in the last fifteen years! Baby steps, and they've got a lot of catching up to do and have the benefi

      • by Enry ( 630 )

        The reason I compared a car and a truck is because they're built for different purposes. You wouldn't use a $5000 car to safely move all of your possessions across the country - most people would get an 18-wheeler to pack up their stuff and move it. That doesn't mean you can't drive across country in it, it's just not designed or built to haul your stuff. I wouldn't use an 18-wheeler to go get groceries - it's overkill for what you need.

    • by freezin fat guy ( 713417 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @10:10AM (#47992997)

      To say NASA needs to only use the $5000 car isn't in our long term interest.

      I couldn't agree more. Using a $5000 car would make NASA nearly irrelevant as a space agency.

    • The article says it all:

      The MOM orbiter's 33-pound (15-kilogram) scientific payload comprises five instruments that will monitor Mars' atmosphere and weather, take color pictures of the surface and map the planet's mineralogy over the course of six months. In contrast, Maven's 143-pound (65-kilogram) payload includes nine instruments to study Mars' upper atmosphere as part of a yearlong mission and a decades-long scientific campaign. It can also serve as a relay for communications with NASA probes on the Martian surface.

      So MOM was cheaper because it wasn't designed to do the same thing as Maven.

    • by Vitriol+Angst ( 458300 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @10:40AM (#47993265)

      Another HUGE thing to consider that "Government Waste" is not always government waste.

      If it costs $120,000 to keep a top level engineer employed at NASA and they compete with a $20,000 engineer in India -- that isn't $100,000 of waste. That's +$100,000 to our GDP, and someone sending their kids to college.

      The true meaning of Waste is a cut to taxes on financial instruments that end up becoming offshore investments. Extra "profits" are things you need to worry about in a free market economy -- not people pulling in a paycheck.

      I want to live next to that Engineer at NASA, I want my kids to go to boyscouts with his kids, and I don't want everyone to have families arguing over bills -- THAT is the hidden cost to bean counters trying to micromanage society.

    • And this post should be the end of it. There's really nothing else to say. Non-bias approach. I like it.
    • Check out the cheap ride in the "dog seat" [google.com]. Good spots reserved for family members.

    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

      The article spells out the differences - the India probe took longer, weighed less, has fewer experiments, and probably won't last long

      If it makes it significantly cheaper, I'm not convinced any of that are bad things. With the time and resources NASA would take to make one Mars mission, India can make *several*, each building on the results of the last. Its sort of the Worse is Better [jwz.org] approach applied to space missions. Or for you whippersnappers, consider it an iterative (aka: "Agile") approach to space missions, as opposed to NASA stuck using Waterfall [wikipedia.org].

      • by Enry ( 630 )

        That would be a valid point if the two orbiters were exactly the same. They're not. India is much closer to the equator than Florida, so launch costs are significantly reduced. Labor costs are reduced. Material may not need to be shipped as far and thus cost less. Maybe NASA and its suppliers have contracts for materials that are more expensive at a point in time, but avoid fluctuations over a long period of time.

        I'd add that this isn't the first mission to Mars that NASA has made. They've been doing

  • It was so cheap because India relied on the R&D done by developed nations. And then it forgot to include the cost of its own R&D for the program. It just included the cost of the mission in an as is where is condition. Vallah!! we have a cheap Mars mission. How else can they score some brownie points? They are certainly not the first to go around Mars. But hey, if they say they are the first at being the cheapest to go to Mars, well that's a first in some way!! And they scored some brownie points.

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      It's 1/6 the cost, and does far less work.
      This article is another stupid attempt to make the US government look inefficient, when in fact it makes it look better when you look at the actual projects and missions.

    • by Chrisq ( 894406 )

      It was so cheap because India relied on the R&D done by developed nations

      Partly, but the key technologies were not shared [forbesindia.com] as the USA blocked this, so India developed a lot itself.

  • If you just want to put something around another planet it doesn't cost that much. If you are designing and building equipment that has never flown in space before it costs quite a bit more. And the whole scientific reason for going in the first place is to collect data. And it's not just the number of instruments or what they are measuring but how good are they? Just like benchtop equipment as you want more precision in your equipment prices escalate rapidly.

  • by nimbius ( 983462 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @09:55AM (#47992823) Homepage
    comparing interstellar research and exploration to consumer capitalism really is like comparing besan to jackfruit. The goals are entirely different, and the reward as well. Gravity, the film, may have cost more to produce than the Indian mars mission, but its jusified by a seven fold return of $716,392,705 dollars at the box office. wealth is its goal. After a month, the film will go on to blu-ray, netflix, and other less lucrative outlets. After a year it will be nearly forgotten. in 5 years Sandra Bullock will be getting AARP membership notices. in 10 years George Clooney will be well into the average age for a hip replacement surgery.

    Mangalyaan's six month mission is about collecting data that will be studied, reviewed, and scrutinized for far longer than the age of a "Gravity" blu-ray. It will continue to pay dividends long after its orbit has decayed. its actions pave the way for discoveries into planetary physics and science, not coffee mugs and concession sales. Mangalyaan's science may one day help solve some of the most complex questions in astrophysics, or it may help start colonies on other planets. Mangalyaan's goal is science, knowledge, and progress toward a bright future.
    • by Scottingham ( 2036128 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @10:21AM (#47993089)
      I had no idea what besan or jackfruit were... I will now stop comparing the two.
    • by xfizik ( 3491039 )

      Mangalyaan's six month mission is about collecting data that will be studied, reviewed, and scrutinized for far longer than the age of a "Gravity" blu-ray. It will continue to pay dividends long after its orbit has decayed. its actions pave the way for discoveries into planetary physics and science, not coffee mugs and concession sales. Mangalyaan's science may one day help solve some of the most complex questions in astrophysics, or it may help start colonies on other planets. Mangalyaan's goal is science, knowledge, and progress toward a bright future.

      I think you are getting a little over-excited about the importance of Mangalyaan to "planetary physics and science". As the article correctly states, it's essentially a demonstration that "we can do it too" (from the Indian point of view). Its scientific value is fairly small given the number of Mars missions other countries have launched or will launch in the near future. It does help build local expertise in space engineering in India which one day may or may not make a significant contribution to mankind

  • I see this story as a symptom of a seemingly natural progression in scientific and technical endeavours. The cost of advanced technology in general is being driven down by market forces, so the barrier to entry is lower than it used to be even for space shots. And people are starting to sense economic opportunities in space. So the cost is coming down as the capabilities and sophistication are going up - that's the story of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath.

    It may not be long before there will be

  • One major difference (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @10:07AM (#47992963)

    TFA pointed out that India is a lot more forgiving of failure and fast iteration than the US is today. There's a lot of truth to that. Our soundbite culture has basically left us where politicians can screech at "that waste of money" like a scientific experiment of dubious value. Even as a staunch fiscal conservative, my response to that sort of thing is... so what? Are you really going to tell me that what's eating the federal budget alive is $2M to study the reproductive habits of spotted-ass field mice as opposed to, say, massive fraud in Social Security Disability, Medicare, government contracting and having a civil service that doubles as a jobs program to artificially inflate the middle class? More often than not, government failure on an engineering effort is the result of the government's byzantine procurement regulations crashing head-long into an unaccountable bureaucracy that doesn't stick to the plan. At least that's the IT side of it. I would imagine that even NASA has a share of that.

    • NASA in Vegas (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @12:11PM (#47994177) Journal

      TFA pointed out that India is a lot more forgiving of failure and fast iteration than the US is today.

      NASA tried the "faster, better, cheaper" (FBC) approach in the 90's with roughly a 50% success rate. UK also tried a "cheap" Mars lander, the Beagle, that was a bust.

      If India can demonstrate they can KEEP going cheap and be successful, then we can conclude they are on to something. NASA's FBC also looked good at the start.

      It's too early to tell for India. And even if they could get up to a 70% success rate, the 30% failure rate could be seen as a national embarrassment by some standards. Although, maybe a 3rd-world country may be more tolerable of such, being seen as underdog newbies.

      It's also hard to plan science and control staffing if 30% of your probes are duds; and by sheer probability, 2 or 3 could fail in a row even at a 70% average, leaving a decade of gaps.

      • For the shuttle program, 2% failure rate was a major embarrassment and resulted on major, worldwide news stories and grounding of the fleet for years at a time.

        When that's framing your risk tolerance, there's going to be a lot more care (and money) involved.

        • The problem with the shuttle failures is:
          Both where avoidable
          Both costed plenty of lifes

          The fact that the Challanger crew died is in one regard only due to the fact that the rescue system got 'scratched' for cost reasons. The crew survived until the cockpit of the shuttle crashed into the sea. The whole crash itself, caused by the 'malfunctioning' solid fuel booster rockets was completely avoidable.

          Columbia only needed to change the reentrance vector to imcrease its chance of survival by 1000% but 'mission

  • by pipingguy ( 566974 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @10:26AM (#47993143)
    "...aerospace engineers are paid a median annual salary of $9,773 in India, and almost eight times more — $75,940 — in the United States."

    I would have guessed that $75K figure would be higher.

    At many (not software or computer hardware) engineering discussion boards you'll see technical questions coming in that seem to have easy or obvious answers. They are often from overseas engineers or tech people who are unfamiliar with rules of thumb or common methods/processes or have trouble with terminology/English language. It's not because of a lack of competence.
    • "rules of thumb" and "common methods/processes" are very much included in "competence"

    • by fnj ( 64210 )

      I would have guessed that $75K figure would be higher.

      75 grand is just the salary; not the accounting cost of employing one engineer. The latter is probably at least twice that figure. There are a lot of costs not paid to the employee directly: overhead/administration, employer matching 401k funding (used to be direct pension funding, but that's pretty much dead these days), employer share of "payroll" tax (Social Security), unemployment insurance, usually-to-almost-always health insurance, etc.

      Also, the 75

  • The very end of the article states that hopefully future missions will use solar sails for an even cheaper project price. One tiny, miniscule little rock and there goes the sail. It's like dropping a bowling ball on a parachute. I don't know why people think it's a good idea. It isn't!
  • by bradgoodman ( 964302 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @10:56AM (#47993415) Homepage
    Are you implying that the US Government overpays, spending money and managing projects in a wasteful or inefficient manner? I say good day to you sir!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      Perhaps we spend a lot per probe relatively speaking, but NASA has had a great track record since giving up the "cheapo" approach of the 90's. The NASA/JPL Mars rovers and orbiters have done wonderful science.

      In fact, the USA is the only country to land a working probe(s) on Mars. Both UK and USSR have attempted. (The Soviets came close, but it's debatable whether a certain attempt actually sent usable measurements back.)

      Even if you deem it expensive, at least we got our money's worth, unlike some expensive

  • Who cares? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by boristdog ( 133725 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @11:03AM (#47993479)

    Whatever the cost, it just got over a billion people excited about space again.

    • For what, all of thirty seconds? A minute? People get excited about space all the time, it doesn't last. (And no, this isn't a new thing. It runs at least as far back as the sixties.)

    • It also gives more countries the confidence boost needed to launch their own space programs. All this expands the opportunity to grow the base of experienced scientists and engineers for aerospace and other fields which has proven time and again to be a great investment.
    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

      Whatever the cost, it just got over a billion people excited about space again.

      I used to live about 15 miles from where the Space Shuttle lifted off in Florida, back when that program was active. Every shuttle launch I could, I'd go down to the beach to watch. (Greatest free show on earth, btw.)

      What I noticed was that probably the majority of the folks down there watching with me every time were not my fellow Floridians, or even Americans. It was people from all over the earth. Asians, Middle Easterners, Africans, South Americans, Europeans. Everyone was there watching.

      So I think it

  • Well, I'd imagine the cost difference is because we have engineers/developers/etc who make about 10-20 times the amount of their Indian counterparts. Yes, NASA pays exhorbinant costs (take a look at how much private companies are paying for their shuttles vs NASA) . You also have to compare American cost of labor/parts vs India. Now can someone run the metrics of cost of services/goods of India vs America? Take that factor into account and give us an adjusted price difference
  • by Ragica ( 552891 ) on Thursday September 25, 2014 @12:32PM (#47994423) Homepage

    It's disturbing all these comparisons between the budget of Hollywood movies and a space program. It's ridiculous... the space program may aim to eventually travel to the stars, but Hollywood movies are MADE FROM stars. Imagine if space programs had to build orbiters and probes out of actual stars... now you get the picture. The precious resource that Hollywood movies are made from far outshines any glorified firework.

    To look at it yet another way, Gravity took US ALL into space, in a way that probably felt more real to us than if we had actually gone into boring old space. Whereas the Indian mars orbiter didn't take anyone, not even Matt Daemon. It might send back a few snapshots and data hardly anyone will be interested in. We won't even get a T-Shirt out of it. There is no comparison.

  • Maybe they can outsource their work to India's space agency for $10/hour.

  • Maybe the business model India used is worthy of attention.

    I'm considering a Kick Starter project of sending a vehicle to the Moon to harvest He3. I will use technologies from anyone I chose. I will then sell my bounty to highest bidder. What could possibly go wrong?

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