Earlier this week, two spacecraft arrived at the planet Mars. One came from India, the other from the U.S. Both are now in orbit and collecting data. But the Indian probe is conducting its mission at a tiny fraction of the cost of its NASA counterpart.
"Some of the publicly available numbers are in the $74 million to $75 million range," says Amaresh Kollipara, a managing partner of Earth 2 Orbit, a company that pairs private satellite providers with the Indian space agency.
NASA's mission cost $637 million, says Bruce Jakosky, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and the primary investigator on the project. "And we came in under budget."
So why did the American mission cost so much more?
"People have held off asking, but we've been expecting that question," Jakosky says.
It turns out there's more than one reason the Indian mission cost less.
First, the spacecraft itself is a lot less sophisticated than its NASA counterpart, and is not designed to last as long. "It's essentially buying a Honda Civic verses buying a Mercedes S-Class," Kollipara says. The Indian craft has fewer cameras and scientific doohickeys.
The Indians also chose a cheaper orbit around Mars. When the NASA mission came near the red planet, it fired its engines a lot, in order slow itself into a more circular orbit. India didn't slow down as much. It is orbiting in a big oval with Mars at one end. The downside of that path is that the Indian spacecraft only gets close to Mars once every few days. But fewer firings of the engine meant the Indian spacecraft would need less fuel. That helped keep the weight down to nearly half that of the NASA mission — and that lighter load made it much cheaper to launch.
The other big cost-saver was back on Earth. It takes a lot of people to build a spacecraft.
"We had, at one point, over 600 people working on the project," says Jakosky.
And those people need to be paid. India, it turns out, has loads of top-notch aerospace engineers, and Kollipara says they're cheap. "One number that I did hear, is about 50,000 to 60,000 rupees a month, which is about $1,000 a month. I can assure you that NASA engineers earn a lot more than that."
These days, India's engineers aren't just building rockets. Kollipara says the country is making great strides in high-tech manufacturing.
"It is growing," he says. "There will be more precision-type manufacturing out of various industries, I think, coming out of India over the next 10 years."
And India's space ambitions aren't over either. The next step may be putting an astronaut into orbit.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
I'm Scott Simon. India did something utterly remarkable this week. It put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And you can see the excitement among all the scientists.
They are all having beaming faces and congratulating each other on the Mars orbit insertion.
SIMON: India's achievement is all the more remarkable because the nation made it to Mars for a fraction of what it cost the United States and Europe to send their probes. We ask NPR's Geoff Brumfiel to figure out how India made the journey on a budget.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: India is proud to have made it to Mars, but the nation is just as proud of the fact that they did it for far less money than anyone else. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke moments after the spacecraft began orbiting the red planet.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Foreign language spoken).
BRUMFIEL: He boasted that not only was it cheaper than an American space mission, it was cheaper than a movie about an American space mission.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MODI: (Foreign language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GRAVITY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mission abort. Repeat mission abort.
GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Matt Kowalski) Explorer, this is Kowalski confirming visual...
BRUMFIEL: The film "Gravity" cost $100 million to make, and India's Mars mission?
AMARESH KOLLIPARA: Some of the publicly available numbers are in the $74-75 million range.
BRUMFIEL: Amaresh Kollipara is managing partner of Earth 2 Orbit, a company that pairs private satellite providers with the Indian space agency so they can use Indian rockets to get into orbit. Now, Kollipara doesn't quite buy the movie comparison. He says that $70-some million number comes down to some slightly fuzzy accounting. The mission probably cost more. But India still spent way less than what NASA pays to go to Mars.
KOLLIPARA: Yes, the Indian price tag is much, much lower.
BRUMFIEL: In fact this week, a NASA mission also reached the red planet. Its trip was way more expensive.
BRUCE JAKOSKY: Six-hundred-and-thirty-seven million and we came in under budget.
BRUMFIEL: That's Bruce Jakosky who's leading the NASA mission called Maven. So why did the NASA one cost so much more?
JAKOSKY: People have held off asking but we've been expecting that question.
BRUMFIEL: OK, so there's some obvious differences. The Indian spacecraft had fewer cameras and science doohickeys. If the NASA mission is a Mercedes, then this is a Honda Civic. But the Indians also chose a cheaper orbit around Mars.
JAKOSKY: When you go into orbit, you do it by firing your rocket engines to slow down.
BRUMFIEL: And how much you slow down determines the shape of your orbit. Now, the NASA mission wanted a nice circular orbit so it had to fire its engines a lot. India is orbiting in a big oval with Mars at one end. It means the spacecraft only gets close to Mars once every few days but the oval orbit required fewer rocket firings. That meant the spacecraft carried less fuel and weighed less, around half the weight of the NASA mission. So it was a lot cheaper to launch from Earth. The other big cost saver was back on Earth. It takes a lot of people to build a spacecraft.
JAKOSKY: We had, at one point, over 600 people working on the project.
BRUMFIEL: And those people need to be paid. India, it turns out, has loads of top-notch aerospace engineers and Amaresh Kollipara says they're cheap.
KOLLIPARA: One number that I did here was around 50,000 or 60,000 rupees a month, which is about a thousand dollars a month. I can assure you that a lot of NASA engineers earn a lot more than that.
BRUMFIEL: Space makes the headlines but Kollipara says India's affordable engineers are hard at work in other parts of the economy as well.
KOLLIPARA: The aerospace industry is one area. This Mars mission is an example. The automotive industry, there's a growing high-tech R-and-D industry. There will be more precision-type manufacturing across various industries, I think, coming out of India over the next 10 years.
BRUMFIEL: And India's space ambitions aren't over either. The next step may be putting an astronaut into orbit. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.