Over the past decade India’s Space Research Organization (ISRO) has made very steady progress in space activity with the development of rocket engines, launch capability for multi-stage satellites, geosynchronous vehicle launch, polar satellite launch, mission planning and execution and more under the leadership of G. Madhavan Nair (2003-09) and his successor, K. Radhakrishnan as chairmen (2009-)., ISRO has now scored the first interplanetary success with the Mangalyaan in orbit around Mars as of Sept. 24, 14.


It is purely coincidental that these two technical leaders hail from the same state of India, Kerala, and graduated from the same College of Engineering at Thiruvananthapuram. The Mars mission has provided a tremendous boost to the organization’s confidence index and to the morale of the Indian nation. It so happened that on Sept. 21, 2014, just three days prior to Mangalyaan going into orbit, A NASA probe MAVEN also arrived in orbit around Mars. This is the tenth NASA probe for Mars.

Mangalyaan is India’s first Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Its objectives are limited by its relatively light, 15kg (~33 lbs), payload. After the maneuver into Mars orbit, its assignments include: scan photographically the Martian landscape, study morphology and mineralogy of the surface over the life of the craft, and monitor the atmosphere of Mars, particularly, its methane content. The presence of methane is an indicator of life of some sort before. The 15 kg payload will not permit much more than these functions and maintenance of life support functions for the craft. The spacecraft has an estimated life span one year. NASA and ISRO are already working to establish a joint Mars working group.

The project was accomplished on a shoe string budget of $74 million over three years. The production of some block buster movies such as Gravity, recently, cost more. ISRO succeeded in reaching Mars orbit in its first try. Others including the United States, Russia, China and Japan failed to score on their first attempts.

The system was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center site at Sriharikota on Nov. 5, 2013. The craft’s trajectory to reach its destination prior to insertion into Mars orbit required a few sling shot moves, swinging around the earth several times to gain speed in earth’s gravity field. The insertion of Mangalyaan in the vicinity of Mars is a crucial maneuver with the liquid propellant engine and eight auxiliary mini rockets.

To provide a crude analogy to this operation: consider the two freeways, interstate 5 and freeway 91 that approach each other, in the city of Fullerton, California. They merge into each other and run as one for about 150 yards and then separate out again. To transition from one to the other, the motorist has to be alert, slow down, and change lanes towards his destination Thousands of motorist do this right every hour, but some fail. I avoid it. But this is not catastrophic, an extra mile of detour will put you back on your intended route. Try to scale up the transition time to 24 minutes, add a third dimension to the operating space, the distance to several thousand kilometers and forget the detour possibility. We have then the complications with the spacecraft. For the command and control center in Bangalore, therefore, failure is not an option.

In an op-ed piece in the Financial Times Gurcharan Das asserted that the $74m Mars mission benefits India every bit as much as a clean water project. Virulent critics were there in 1962 when President Kennedy challenged the country to land a man on the moon and bring him back safe. The untold benefits to America are well known. India stands to gain in similar proportion from the morale boost, advance in science education, development of satellite industries to support launch operations, launch and planning services and so much more. Generations will get inspired when heroic achievements are accomplished.

Now, from the sublime to the remarkable.

On September 21st, just three days prior to orbit insertion of Mangalyaan, David Mitchell, the program director for the NASA MAVEN program proclaimed: “Oh, what a night! You get one shot with Mars insertion; MAVEN nailed it!” It was exciting for NASA for the tenth time as well.

The team of scientists and engineers at the command center, Bangalore also were excited and ready for that one shot. They did it in perfect copy book fashion.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) snapped the mood of the team, probably a minute after the “nailing.” The snapshot went viral on the internet. It was a moment in time for the history books.

Here is a congratulatory cheer to our pioneers.

P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes basic and applied research and program management for the Dept. of Defense. He taught Physics at the Univ. of Kerala, at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly.

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