Critics have found no shortage of reasons to be down on India’s launch of a space probe destined for Mars yesterday.
For them, there is no glorying in the achievement of the Indian Space Research Organisation, which, if all goes well, will become only the fourth space agency after Russia, the US and Europe to conduct a successful mission to the Red Planet. Instead, naysayers talk gloomily of hundreds of millions of Indians barely scratching a living.
It is true that India labours under crippling poverty. More than a third of the world’s poorest people live there, and not far off half the country’s children are undernourished. While big cities fizz with all that the 21st century has to offer, much of the rural hinterland lacks even the most basic infrastructure. Meanwhile, distortions of economic growth are making Indian society ever more unequal, corruption is rife and healthcare too often shamefully poor. Against such a troubled backdrop, a space programme can, indeed, look uncomfortably like a clumsy attempt at distraction.
And yet yesterday’s blast-off should be welcomed, not disparaged. First, the cost. The $72m budget of the Mangalyaan probe (“Mars craft” in Hindi) is not sufficient, even if channelled elsewhere, to solve India’s many and complex problems.
Then the immediate benefits for India must be evaluated. Not only does the programme command much support and interest across the country, with all that implies for future education and skills. The benefits that trickle down from such high-end scientific research are also far from negligible.
Finally, of course, there is the sum total of human knowledge to consider. If the ISRO mission is a success, it will relay back to Earth new information about the Martian environment. How is that something not to be celebrated?