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India has managed to churn out some very inexpensive, but efficient spacecraft in the last decade. The nation does this by following a fixed production strategy to keep costs low.
The Indian Space Research Organization, more popularly known as ISRO, recently launched its second unmanned moon mission named Chandrayaan-2, which literally translates to “MoonCraft-2”. The spacecraft includes three main components—the Orbiter, the Vikram lander, and the Pragyan lunar rover—all of which were built for a total cost of 140 million USD or Rs. 978 crores. For a spacecraft that traveled 3.84 lakh km (not including the seven-year orbit around the moon), the cost ends up equating to a mileage of 364 USD per kilometer. For most of us, these numbers mean nothing, so the question is, why am I writing about this?
The United States spent about 25 billion USD on its Apollo moon missions, which is equivalent to 175 billion USD today (Inflation has certainly hit us hard). China’s Change 4, which was launched in December of 2018, cost the country about 8.4 billion USD. It is here that Chandrayaan-2’s astonishingly low price starts to come into perspective. To put this into different terms, consider ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’, who earns about 110 million USD each year, or the movie ‘Avengers: Endgame’, which cost 356 million USD to make. If a country is creating a high-functioning spacecraft towards the stars for 40% of the cost of a Hollywood movie, its builders must be doing something magical. So… how does the ISRO manage to make its space program so inexpensive?
Effective production techniques and cost of labor
“Simplifying the system, miniaturizing the complex systems, strict quality control and maximizing output from products make our space missions frugal and cost-effective. We keep strict vigil on each and every stage of development for a spacecraft or rocket and, therefore, we’re able to avoid wastage of products, which helps us minimize the mission cost.” This is what K. Sivan (ISRO chief) told The Times of India when asked about the secret behind the inexpensive nature of the organization’s entire moon mission.
These statements imply that the ISRO keeps a close watch on the production of every component, so the defective pieces are eliminated entirely. Considering the complexity of a spacecraft and the number of components involved, this would certainly go a long way in conserving cost. Again, the ISRO relies on a slow, labor-oriented production technique that involves a high level of specialization (each department doing only the work they’re best at).
In India, as a labor-intensive nation, the cost of labor in the country is very low. As such, the above-mentioned process plays a vital role in reducing the cost of components used in the country’s satellites.
Inexpensive payload and use of gravity
One reason for the lower costs of the ISRO’s space missions, as compared to other space agencies, is the relatively inexpensive payload. The payload is essentially the equipment that a spacecraft carries along with it to perform various tests. Chandrayaan-2’s payload included simple, light and inexpensive instruments, such as a soft X-ray Spectrometer, Solar X-ray monitor and an IR Spectrometer, amongst others.
Compared to this, NASA’s Apollo 17—the space giant’s last manned moon mission—carried instruments for a biological cosmic ray experiment, a laser altimeter, a traverse gravimeter and many more. While the function of each of these instruments is beyond the scope of this article, one thing is pretty clear—these payloads were greater in number and combined weight than those hosted by Chandrayaan-2. These instruments significantly contributed to the total cost of Apollo 17.
Chandrayaan-2 took around 40 days to reach the moon, which is longer than any other lunar probe. In this process, it maximized the use of the gravitational pull between the Moon and the Earth to gain velocity by increasing the number of orbits it made around Earth. As such, the amount of fuel required for pushing it out of our planet’s orbit was comparatively low and helped in reducing the total cost. A smaller amount of fuel also reduced its total weight.
Although cheap, was this mission justified?
While Chandrayaan-2 showed that it’s possible to reach the moon on a low budget, its launch also raised a few questions about the timing of the mission. India is a developing nation with 22% of its current population living below the poverty line (Asian Development Bank). As such, the 140 million USD spent on the lunar probe could have found better areas of expenditure in a nation where 200 million people go to sleep hungry every day. Having said this, I have no intention of demeaning the Indian space program; the country has made amazing technological advances in a very short period of time, but all of it has come at a great cost.
A Final word
The indefinite existence of humanity is not guaranteed. Our planet has limited resources, we are depleting them at an incredible rate, and we’re doing irreparable harm to the environment across the globe. While these facts might feel irrelevant right now, they won’t feel that way forever. Climate change will ultimately transform Earth into a planet that will be unable to support its current and ever-increasing occupants. As such, humans must turn to other celestial bodies capable of hosting life. At that time, the Indian space program and The Apollo Moon Missions won’t matter; saving the human race will become the great focus.
This brings us to my final point; the world would benefit greatly if different countries and agencies shared their technology to jointly launch space initiatives. The International Space Station (ISS) is a joint initiative between five participating space agencies—NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada)—and has demonstrated what humans can do when they work together (read more about the ISS here: Science ABC). In the long run, we will need more of these joint projects and collaborative space programs to stand any chance against the inexorable force of time!