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frugal engineering can boost your space program
February 18, 2014 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Trip to Mars Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank
Just days after the launch of India’s Mangalyaan satellite, NASA sent off its own Mars mission, five years in the making, named Maven. Its cost: $671 million. The budget of India’s Mars mission, by contrast, was just three-quarters of the $100 million that Hollywood spent on last year’s space-based hit, “Gravity.” “The mission is a triumph of low-cost Indian engineering,” said Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist and a professor at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research. “By excelling in getting so much out of so little, we are establishing ourselves as the most cost-effective center globewide for a variety of advanced technologies,” said Mr. Narasimha.
(NYTSL)
posted by infini (44 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
It seems western media is incapable of writing a story about India's Mars Mission without mentioning toilets.
posted by dhruva at 9:44 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]


The modest budget did not allow for multiple iterations. So, instead of building many models (a qualification model, a flight model and a flight spare), as is the norm for American and European agencies, scientists built the final flight model right from the start. Expensive ground tests were also limited.

So, great for launching robots, but maybe not the best idea when it comes to manned missions?
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:52 AM on February 18


A rat done bit my sister Nell Nehal.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:57 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


Drawing no conclusions here, just playing with numbers, but... if the Indian space program costs $1 billion/year and their median income is $616, and the US space program costs $18.18 billion/year and the median income there is $51,017, each year the Indian space program annual costs 0.13% of a median income for each of India's 1.237 billion people, and the US spends 0.11% of a median income for each of its 313.9 million people.

This doesn't take away or add to the conversation about doing more with less, but it is interesting that, proportionally speaking, the Indians aren't that far off from what Americans spend.

A smarter person than I am is also going to make a much better point about the matter of paying engineers and rocket scientists $1000 a month with no weekend or overtime pay.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:58 AM on February 18 [7 favorites]


That NYT is ridiculous and enraging for its lack of knowledge.

You can't compare these two missions, as they're designed to do different things. NASA's MAVEN is a full up "we're exploring Mars atmosphere and what happened to it". ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission is basically a tech demo to prove they can do and investigate what else they need to learn.

That doesn't mean there's nothing NASA or other agencies couldn't learn from this mission, but the different in price tags isn't proof of anything.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:01 AM on February 18 [21 favorites]


This doesn't take away or add to the conversation about doing more with less, but it is interesting that, proportionally speaking, the Indians aren't that far off from what Americans spend.

I wonder what the difference might be if purchasing power parity was taken into account rather than absolute conversion into USD?
posted by infini at 10:03 AM on February 18


$75 million is probably an underestimate.

That article also has this nice conclusion:
With China making the first soft landing on the moon in 37 years and India planning the same in the next two years, it is easy to get lost in lazy metaphors of a space race among growing nations. A national space programme is more like running a marathon. It is not so much about Indians finishing in the top three, but we will be more fit and healthy simply because we ran.
posted by moonmilk at 10:03 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


To be fair, there's been a lot of coverage of the lavatorial facilities from Apollo to the ISS. (I don't much like to think of the longer Gemini flights...)
posted by Devonian at 10:04 AM on February 18


This is very simple.

Launch mass of Mangalyaan = 1360kg
Launch mass of MAVEN = 2454kg

Dry mass of Mangalyann = 500kg
Dry mass of MAVEN = 809kg

Payload mass of Mangalyann = 15kg
Payload mass of MAVEN = 65kg

Planned mission duration of Mangalyaan = 6 months
Planned mission duration of MAVEN = 1 year

So, almost twice the mass into MTO, twice the fuel, four times the payload, double the planned lifetime, and NASA probes generally work well beyond the planned lifetime -- if they don't lithobrake into Mars, of course.

This is comparing a Honda Fit with a BMW 3 series. The Beamer costs more, but does a lot more. If ISRO could build and fly MAVEN for $75 million, then there would be a huge story here, but I don't think they have a booster that could insert 2500kg into MTO -- they can put 2500kg into GTO, but GTO is less Δv than Earth escape+Mars transfer. Indeed, a third of the cost of MAVEN was the Atlas V 401 needed to get it there.

Mangalyaan is a very impressive effort for a first time interplanetary probe, and I wish ISRO all the best -- indeed, the primary mission goal is simply getting into Martian orbit safely. The science payload is actually the secondary mission goal. But one problem they have is they didn't test this thing nearly as deeply as NASA does. NASA does this because they've learned what happens when you don't test the hell out of a probe -- you tend to fail.

Now, there is the theory that you can just keep throwing cheaper probes up until one works -- but you tend to get yelled at when a multi-million dollar probe fails.

I'm also not sure why they're talking about the GSLV booster. Mangalyaan had to be launched on a PSLV booster, because they ran into a streak of failed GSLV launch -- three outright failures, and a partial failure caused by a low orbit, and they moved the mission to the proven PSLV.
posted by eriko at 10:07 AM on February 18 [30 favorites]


This doesn't take away or add to the conversation about doing more with less, but it is interesting that, proportionally speaking, the Indians aren't that far off from what Americans spend.

That's true, but the important part is that for the same amount of shared investment as percent-of-income, they appear to get the same quality space program, despite being a much poorer country than the US. Meaning that as their income and tax base increases, if they maintain the same level of investment and avoid the cost diseases that plague the US program, they could really blow past the US (and maybe Russia as well, but the Russians are better at cost-optimizing than the US is too).
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:09 AM on February 18


MAVEN is carrying a 143lb science payload and designed to last for 1 year. MOM is carrying 33lbs and last for six months. That alone is going to account for large differences in cost. Add in that the writer of the NYT article seems to specialize in writing pro india business pieces and doesn't seem knowledgable about space and the article reads like ignorant bullshit.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:09 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


Interesting article, but I don't think the headline is supported by the text. NASA's missions to Mars haven't broken the bank. Maybe they've inflated it but...

My first question is about the systems reliability of the Indian mission. Do the components there have the same level of reliability as the NASA ones? Are the backup systems as well thought out. Of course, putting too much money into backup systems, that's wasteful. On the other hand, if too little, one may end up with an orbiting brick. The performance of the missions should help us understand better if reliability is an issue.

Secondly, what's the scope of the mission? NASA has 8 instruments, and India has 5. That's a really poor metric, but ultimately is there a difference in the science that can be done?

Then there's this:

Wealthier countries may have little incentive to pursue technological advances on the cheap, but not a populous, resource-starved country.

Uh... any engineer will try to get the work done as cheaply as possible within the requirements of reliability etc. That's just a weird statement. Borderline racist in that I guess it implies that India is more effective because they are desperate. Uh huh.

Next:

The most obvious way ISRO does it is low-cost engineering talent, the same reason so many software firms use Indian engineers. India’s abundant supply of young technical talent helped rein in personnel costs to less than 15 percent of the budget.

Global wealth disparity and inflation is one hell of a way to save money.

This is one of the only solid examples of how to save money in this article:

Cost savings also came from using similar systems across a dozen concurrent projects. Many related technologies could be used in the Mars project; Astrosat, an astronomy mission to be launched in late 2014; the second moon mission, which is two years away; and even Aditya, a solar mission four years out.

Of course, the article doesn't say if NASA is failing to reuse components wisely...

And then:

Teams also did the kind of thing engineers working on missions do around the world. They worked through weekends with no overtime pay, putting in more hours to the dollar. Mr. Arunan slept on the couch in his office through the 18 months, rereading his favorite P. G. Wodehouse novels to relieve stress. "This is the Indian way of working,” said Mr. Annadurai.

WHAT THE FUCK?! So basically the argument is that Americans are soft for demanding reasonable work weeks and paid overtime, whereas the modern world demands slavish devotion to work for the benefit of corporate/government wealth and prestige?! I thought the New York Times was a liberal newspaper. What the hell is this?

4/10. Very interesting topic, but flawed arguments.
posted by sixohsix at 10:11 AM on February 18 [5 favorites]


It seems western media is incapable of writing a story about India's Mars Mission without mentioning toilets.

People forget that during the 60s the majority of the American public were critical of the space program precisely because they saw it as wasteful spending when there were more pressing domestic priorities, including poverty. The idea that has emerged in more recent decades of a nation electrified by Kennedy's pledge to "go to the moon" and united in awe at the thrilling exploits of the Apollo astronauts is, let us say, inadequately supported by the available evidence.
posted by yoink at 10:14 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Finally, MOM hasn't actually made it to Mars yet. While I hope it does and that its a complete success for the ISRO, Mars is notorious for "eating" spacecraft.

We'll see what happens on September 24th, 2014.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:16 AM on February 18


I'm just excited to see more nations participating in exploration beyond Earth.
posted by humanfont at 10:27 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


While Mangalyaan may be half the size of Maven, dhruva's link had some other interesting comparisons:
Many of these journalists cribbing about the cost seem disconnected from India. We spent 450 crores on this mission. Let me put that in context. One of the local cricket teams – Mumbai Indians – alone is worth 1000 crores. Ambani built a home in Mumbai for 5000 crores. Every single day, Indians buy gold jewelry worth 1500 crores. An upcoming Bollywood movie (made about space) is costing over 500 crores.
Maven was $671 million; Gravity's budget was $100 million. The contexts seem pretty different.

Plus it's great that more nations are stepping up to address Mar's pressing shortage of robot explorers.
posted by postcommunism at 10:28 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


MOM hasn't actually made it to Mars yet.

Right, thanks to a wily little boy.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:28 AM on February 18


*sends a plate of samosas to Brandon Blatcher*

*follows up with a nice cool lassi*
posted by infini at 10:44 AM on February 18


Maven? Is Professor Frink consulting at NASA?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:03 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


First thing I did this morning is launch a mission to the most intriguing planet in the solar system. I swung my feet off the launch pad, touched down and began my exploration. Mission objective one: determine the presence of coffee and obtain a sample.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:04 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


The nytimes business section is not particularly liberal. This particular article isn't particularly terrible but its rather false and stupid headline, and lack of critical analysis, is symptomatic of them writing to their clientele.
posted by polymodus at 11:08 AM on February 18


It's a long way to Mars. Mr. Narasimha's quoted statements strike me as a lot of pre-hatch chicken counting.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:14 AM on February 18


I hate --- haaaaaaaate -- the entire meme of "NASA is a wasteful government agency that just needs to be more EFFICIENT."

NASA has undergone multiple, aggressive, ruthless transformations in the past fifteen years. There have been mistakes and poor judgement calls -- particularly in high-stakes, the-defense-industry-is-interested-in-this areas like launch systems -- but those mistakes are openly acknowledged and frequently referenced within the aerospace community. They're seen as object lessons in how NOT to run a program.

"Commercial spaceflight!!!!" is often the reply, but then, the current success of commercial spaceflight is due in no small part to the money and resources that NASA provides to companies like SpaceX.

NASA's budget has been squeezed and sliced into a fraction of what it once was. The fact that it's managing to do anything at all, let alone the fantastic work that the agency has accomplished, is impressive and I take my hat off to them.

Space is expensive. This kind of article is insulting at best and actively bad for progress at worst.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:14 AM on February 18 [16 favorites]


Maven was $671 million; Gravity's budget was $100 million. The contexts seem pretty different.

I'm not really sure they are. The ultimate context for both of them is space, and -- if the missions really are equivalent -- India is getting there for less.

The fact that the US also spends a ridiculous amount of money to make movies, relative to India's film industry, isn't really relevant. A Bollywood movie in Hindi and a Hollywood movie in English are not really interchangeable goods; if they were, Hollywood would be dead. But getting your x-kilogram payload to orbit, or to the Moon, or to Mars? That's pretty easily comparable.

It remains to be seen whether the 'output' of the Indian space program is really NASA-grade, in terms of reliability, actual science performed, lift capacity, etc., though.

Right now we have two competing theories which ought to be testable: (1) that the Indian space program is efficient and basically just better than sclerotic, bloated, jobs-program-for-nerds-and-nazis NASA, and they are eating our lunch; (2) that India is running a cut-rate program and will eventually figure out that you get what you pay for, and there's a basically constant linear relationship between dollars/rupees/rubles in and quality engineering out which is constant regardless of where you are on the planet, so sorry, TANSAFL.

I don't know which of those is more likely to be true, to be honest. As a First Worlder, I guess I would prefer that it's #2. I'd like to think that by paying engineers more and giving people a First World standard of living and other nice stuff, that they actually do better work and are more productive in some objective way. But there's no reason necessarily that such a theory must be true. It could be that you can pay people a few bucks a day and make them sleep under desks and basically work the living shit out of them, running the engineering equivalent of an outsourced electronics fab or a garment sweatshop, and get the same quality output for less input. In that case, we're all fucked and we'd better come up with some better ways of preventing a race to the bottom than just hoping that quality will triumph.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:16 AM on February 18


Teams also did the kind of thing engineers working on missions do around the world. They worked through weekends with no overtime pay, putting in more hours to the dollar. Mr. Arunan slept on the couch in his office through the 18 months, rereading his favorite P. G. Wodehouse novels to relieve stress. "This is the Indian way of working,” said Mr. Annadurai.

One positive aspect of this (for us), is that if the US ever decides it likes the India space program, it's one phone call and a couple of visas away from having it. There are more than humanitarian arguments to be made for not blatantly abusing your expensively trained technical experts.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:25 AM on February 18


It could be that you can pay people a few bucks a day and make them sleep under desks and basically work the living shit out of them, running the engineering equivalent of an outsourced electronics fab or a garment sweatshop, and get the same quality output for less input. In that case, we're all fucked and we'd better come up with some better ways of preventing a race to the bottom than just hoping that quality will triumph.

This really isn't true anymore. Bangalore's cost of living and lifestyle has skyrocketed with its boom years of the past two decades. But the space program, the ISRO, HAL, BHEL, IISc and the whole circuit of quasi governmental science and aeronautics agencies, institutions and programmes have been part and parcel of India's push for self reliance in scientific advancement and technological innovation.

I am not speaking as a patriot, I carry an Indian passport but may have spent less than 25% of my life there. But I moved to India in 1984, it was to Bangalore for my engineering degree, when it was still teh Garden City and these scientists were the revered ones, the geeks and nerds and gurus. I doubt if money has anything to do with this so much as aspiration, pride, esteem and pure scientific advancement. Former President of India APJ Kalam was one of those rocket scientists.

My father's cousin worked for HAL where he designed helicopters, which made him a civil servant barely making pennies all his life. But they were all living in state built, free of cost housing with many perks that counterbalance the comparatively lower pay as compared to a US engineer. He was driven by his work, I'd go visit them, his son would talk to me about vedic mathematics, his hobby while Uncle would be forever tinkering with his 40 year old Morris.

I've also met scientists from ISRO when active in the Karnataka Quiz Association, we were the only college age team to make it to the Open finals. Those guys are crazy haired genius types, more likely to talk in equations and higher math, spout Kant and Heidegger and cast vedic astrological charts as a hobby. Otherworldly, unmaterialistic, thinkers, dreamers, reachers for the stars.

This is a segment of Bangalore society that one doesn't hear so much about and if Narasimha sounds a little exuberant with his claims, I wouldn't be surprised if its because the damn thing got off the f'king ground given their lack of budget and reliance on jugaad and chewing gum to get anything going.

Its a very different world from the IT hotshot Bangalore of today, a wholly different culture.

From teh ISRO's about page, Vikram Sarabhai's words:

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the comity of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.
posted by infini at 11:57 AM on February 18 [7 favorites]


Favorited for "lithobrake".
posted by whuppy at 11:58 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


is that if the US ever decides it likes the India space program, it's one phone call and a couple of visas away from having it.

After Kennedy's start of the Space Race, there was teh first green card migration of scientists and engineers.
posted by infini at 12:06 PM on February 18


Is there any calculation of how much India's (or China, Space-X, etc) space program would really cost if there wasn't already a mountain of data amassed over the decades by NASA (as well as the Soviet Union) from which to draw? India is hardly starting from scratch. They have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of those much larger, pioneering programs.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:10 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Standing on the shoulders of decades long sanctions, more accurately, unless all the data has been shared in the past few years.

Without the nuclear roadblock being bypassed, the defense industry relationship would have remained still-born since U.S. laws and nonproliferation policy do not permit cooperation with a non-NPT nuclear weapons state that has been under sanctions for three decades.

The pact has led to the dismantling of the technology denial regimes of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 that came after India’s first nuclear bomb test in 1974. The technological denial regime of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 had put a U.S. ban on sale or transfer of sensitive and dual use technology to India and constrained nuclear energy and defense collaboration.[xviii]

posted by infini at 12:18 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


meh. you guys are the exceptional wunderkind. whatever.

*wanders off for shrimp salad*
posted by infini at 12:19 PM on February 18


Is there any calculation of how much India's (or China, Space-X, etc) space program would really cost if there wasn't already a mountain of data amassed over the decades by NASA (as well as the Soviet Union) from which to draw?

I don't think that matters as much as you think. Every new rocket design and its associated systems still need to be tested. It may be know that this metal works better in this part of the rocket for this fuel tank design, but whether it and the associated processes used to manufacture it are up to speed is an unknown that has to be tested.

And India isn't starting from scratch because they have design, built and successfully launched a few satellites, including a couple to the Moon. Like every other space faring nation, be they decade old veterans and newbies still figuring out some of the basics, every launch and mission is new opportunity to learn, be it from failure or success.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:21 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Obviously American scientists and engineers are both over paid and lazy and should be working smarter, not harder.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:28 PM on February 18



People forget that during the 60s the majority of the American public were critical of the space program precisely because they saw it as wasteful spending when there were more pressing domestic priorities, including poverty.


Whitey's on the moon.

posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:29 PM on February 18


And India isn't starting from scratch because they have design, built and successfully launched a few satellites, including a couple to the Moon.

Not to mention that they have the successes and failures of 60 odd years of American, Russian, European, and Chinese space programs to study and improve upon.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:20 PM on February 18


In other space exploration news: Astronomers Make the Case for a Mission to Neptune and Uranus
posted by homunculus at 1:58 PM on February 18


Not to mention that they have the successes and failures of 60 odd years of American, Russian, European, and Chinese space programs to study and improve upon.

While we are comparing costs of current endeavors and not the whole space programs we should perhaps remember that the NASA certainly isn't barred from learning from its own and its peers' mistakes and successes.
posted by hat_eater at 2:23 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Can I just say that this Oh-the-NASA-is-so-inefficient meme is a constant drone from the right? Every middle age white guy blogging about his high taxes loves to imagine how much more efficient the space program could be if it were more free-markety, or why we even need one at all. Leaving the second point for now, I've worked in the defense and intelligence industries as well. Those guys have dollars to every penny of NASA money and never a thought paid to efficiency or oversight. And frankly they are often making stuff up where no real need exists. The amount of concern and ink spilt about specifically NASA efficiency is very much political - it's disingenuous for the article to not acknowledge that.

The whole sleeping-at-the-desk thing, is that the real goal here? I've been coming home from work late daily for weeks now to make schedule (Solar Probe Plus, avionics subsystem, SpaceWire router). You can bet that if I started sleeping at the office, I wouldn't find my wife and kids at home the next time I showed up there.
posted by newdaddy at 9:47 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Also, the bit in the article The average age of India’s 2,500-person Mars team is 27. “At 50, I am the oldest member of my team; the next oldest is 32,” said Subbiah Arunan, the project’s director. This is age discrimination and it's simply not legal in America. Neither is it humane or sustainable. What do they do with all the 33-year-old engineers in India?
posted by newdaddy at 11:23 PM on February 18


This is comparing a Honda Fit with a BMW 3 series.

Never a truer word spoken.
Both would be suitable for 90%+ of trips, though, hey?
Congratulations to the Indians, I hope they are successful beyond our dreams.
Because I need some spectacular successes, and cutting down the other players in this game doesn't make me any taller.
posted by bystander at 3:11 AM on February 19


Also, the bit in the article The average age of India’s 2,500-person Mars team is 27. “At 50, I am the oldest member of my team; the next oldest is 32,” said Subbiah Arunan, the project’s director. This is age discrimination and it's simply not legal in America. Neither is it humane or sustainable. What do they do with all the 33-year-old engineers in India?

It's not age discrimination, its an artefact of India's demographic profile.
posted by atrazine at 3:48 AM on February 19


It's not age discrimination, its an artefact of India's demographic profile.

The median age in India is 25.1 years. I'm not going to grind through the math, but it seems unlikely that in a random sample with a sample size of 2500 there is only one instance greater than 27. Most people who become engineers are not ready to be employed much before India's median age.

In the original article the emphasis is placed on the low labor costs, and the very next sentence after the one containing the age figures tells the average salary of entry level engineers. So the context is that hiring young engineers saved this program money, which is undoubtably true. I'll stand by my earlier assertion.

I'd also like to take issue with the title of the article. America's Mars missions are not breaking the bank. Curiosity cost a total of $2.5 billion. That's $8 per person for every American. In 2012 the entire budget of NASA was 0.48% of the Federal budget. That number has been falling steadily (with a few bumps) since 1967.
posted by newdaddy at 9:17 AM on February 19


Clerics Issue Fatwa: Muslims Can't Live On Mars
posted by homunculus at 3:51 PM on February 20


NASA's Opportunity Rover Photographed from Mars Orbit
posted by homunculus at 5:35 PM on February 20


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