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Ignore the pessimists: Why Isro's Mars mission is important

Susmita Mohanty is India's first space entrepreneur, an Arthur C Clarke protegee and a lifelong champion of democratising access to space. She designs advanced concepts for human space exploration, systems that can shield future space travellers from cosmic rays, solar flares, highly abrasive moon dust and more. She holds a PhD in space architecture and runs E2O (Earth2Orbit) which offers international payloads rides on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) via Antrix, ISRO's commercial arm. In 2006, Susmita was part of Crew-26 that participated in a simulated Mars mission at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the Utah desert.

Susmita co-founded a company in Vienna - Liquifer - that designs future systems for Space and for Earth. Liquifer was part of an architectural study for the first "Human Mission to Mars (HMM) in 2030", a collaborative project in consultation with engineers and scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) and European industry, aimed at developing the interiors of a ‘Transfer Habitat Module’ that would transport a crew of six to Mars. She’s known to tell people she meets for the first time that it’s easier to get to the Moon than to commute to work in Mumbai.

A day after the Mangalyaan launch, Firstpost pins her down for an interview.

From a science point of view as well as from an image-building perspective, what are the implications of Mangalyaan?

If Mangalyaan is successful, the implications can be huge.

The PSLV-C25 rocket lifts off carrying India's Mars spacecraft from the island of Sriharikota. AP

The PSLV-C25 rocket lifts off carrying India's Mars spacecraft from the island of Sriharikota. AP

From a science point of view, as did its predecessors, the Indian Mars orbiter will be looking for methane signatures (a sign of possible life), which if detected, will certainly lend a new momentum to the planetary exploration roadmaps of India, China, US, Europe, Russia and Japan. Going to Mars and setting up the first human-robotic outpost, however modest, will become a priority.

From an image-building perspective, if Mangalyaan successfully makes it to Mars, it can be transformational. We have a very accomplished government space program that ranks among the top six. It all began in the late 1960s with the launch of our first experimental rocket from a coconut plantation in Kerala. Most of humanity, even Indians for that matter, have no idea of how accomplished it is. We are among a handful of nations that can build satellites and launch rockets. We have been rather modest about our achievements. Besides, ISRO's PR is frugal when compared to NASA or ESA that have well-oiled PR machines.

Are there any indications that if Mangalyaan goes through its mission as planned, we’ll see more serious players in space flight/parabolic flights/lander-rover missions, etc in India?

If you are referring to human spaceflight, I think yes, very likely. A successful Mangalyaan mission could potentially serve as a catalyst for our human spaceflight endeavors. We last launched a re-entry capsule (SRE-1) for technology demonstration back in 2007 and its sequel is yet to be launched.

How do you rate the private sector's interest in Indian and specifically in Isro's capabilities after Mangalyaan? A larger share of the global space business could be possible, you think? Do you also, for example, see more players joining you as space entrepreneurs in India?

I hope so. More than Mangalyaan, a lot depends on the new government that India elects in 2014.

New Delhi needs to overhaul its space policy and make it more outward looking, more "extroverted". For decades, the emphasis had appropriately been on "technology independence and space applications to improve the lives of our people here on Earth". While this pragmatic approach can and should continue, we also need to take steps to grow our industry and make it world class so we can compete in the international space marketplace (satellite manufacturing, launching, satellite services and ground equipment), currently pegged at around 300 billion dollars a year. I am confident if we do it right, then in the coming decades, India can go out and capture at least a quarter of this market, if not more.

India is so blinded by its IT industry that it fails to see that the real innovation is actually happening in the space industry in our very own backyard. India is quite literally sitting on a space goldmine. See my policy piece here.

There are the naysayers, two groups actually. One that says this particular mission cannot hope to achieve much in terms of science and the other that's just gawking at the Rs 450 cr bill, one even calling it the "elite's delusional hunt". How would you counter them?

There will always be naysayers. I wouldn't worry about them. It is largely a result of ignorance and stereotyping. The world expects us to be a country run over by cows and fakirs and hungry children and corrupt politicians. There is a lot more to India and they will find out sooner or later or maybe never. Let the pessimists and cynics do what they do best. Let us march on with optimism, with boldness, and give our children something to dream about, to dare, to explore, to reach for the stars.

Isro has always emphasized that space applications have been its priority and that the benefits of its space program trickles down to the common man. What do you think?

I fully agree with Isro.

India's satellites are used for a wide variety of earth applications covering just about every sector you can possibly imagine - TV broadcasting, satellite-based communications, tele-education, tele-medicine, meteorology, defense, homeland security, cartography, disaster management, damage assessment & insurance, urban planning, real estate, oil & gas, minerals & mining, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, water management, land management, resource (renewable and non-renewable) management, tracking & transportation, telecom. The list goes on.

Satellite applications combined with good governance can be a very powerful cocktail. The recent cyclone Phailin demonstrated how we could save millions of human lives via effective use of satellites, meteorological models and good governance.

Having a state-of-the art fleet of earth observation and telecommunication satellites for a subcontinent like India is a necessity, not a luxury.

Is the Martian odyssey really likely to happen? It seems kind of dreamy.

YES! What is life without some romance, no matter how rich or poor we are? This time we are "dreaming with open eyes" and we shall make it happen. As good ol' Oscar (Wilde) said - "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."