This week, Mangalyaan will propel ISRO into the tiny club of space agencies with Mars missions. Significantly, it is not a lander but an orbital craft, a proof of concept demonstrating capabilities required to place and use payloads. This is a realistic refocus, turning away sharply from the profitless ambition of putting a man on the moon. The US and the USSR had set a scorching burn rate in the space race in the past, but they were investing in a geopolitical contest. The world has changed since then and instead of emulating their objectives, which are now irrelevant, India should focus on the prospects of immediate profit from space.
Launches from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre demonstrate India’s capability to offer package deals to the space programmes of other countries, including launch facilities and the design and fabrication of payloads and boosters, potentially a huge market. Smaller countries could soon want their own satellites, instead of renting transponders, for security reasons. Mangalyaan will also demonstrate the capability to execute complicated trajectories and mark the beginning of Indian planet science. Planetary data will gain value in the future as the big data industry grows. Besides, whenever climate change approaches a tipping point, the political urgency to migrate industries and populations to space will develop. Nations with proven space capabilities will be presented with lucrative opportunities.
However, space itself is likely to be a more rewarding destination than moons and planets. Though the initial capital costs are immense, over the long term, it is expected to be much cheaper to conduct mining and manufacturing in asteroid belts and live in self-sustaining orbital habitats. But to develop the credentials for this future industry, ISRO must prioritise manned missions. Specifically, missions to put vyomanauts in orbit, not necessarily on the moon or Mars.