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India and NASA Home In on Mars

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Zero plus one, two, three, four...



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Liftoff normal.



That's the sound from Mission Control in Sriharikota, India, this past Tuesday. The Indian Space Research Organization launched the Mangalyaan Orbiter to probe the Martian atmosphere. It'll take nearly one year for the orbiter to reach Mars and, if it does, India will be the fourth space program to successfully reach the Red Planet.

Even though you might not have known about the Indian Space Research Organization, it's actually been around since the 1960s. It launched an unmanned lunar probe back in 2008.

So what can we expect to see from Mangalyaan and the Indian space program in the future? What about the upcoming NASA Mars mission? Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK. If you're on Twitter you can tweet us at where we live. You can always find out more about what's happening on today's program at www.sciencefriday.com.

Let me introduce our guests. Bruce Jakosky is the principal investigator on NASA MAVEN mission to Mars and a professor of planetary science at University of Colorado in Boulder. Bruce, welcome to the show.

BRUCE JAKOSKY: Pleasure to be here.

DANKOSKY: And Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Welcome to the program.

JOAN JOHNSON-FREESE: Thank you very much.

DANKOSKY: First of all, Bruce, what can you tell us about what's happening with this Indian mission? What exactly will they be studying while they're up there?

JAKOSKY: Well, their focus appears to be looking at different aspects of the surface and atmosphere. They have five different science instruments that will explore different components, try to tell us more about what's going on in the Mars environment today.

DANKOSKY: Is this going to uncover new things that we couldn't have found any other way? Or are they doing this in order to prove a kind of point, Bruce?

JAKOSKY: I think a little bit of both. They have not sent a mission to Mars yet and they're looking to demonstrate that capability. But they also have three science instruments that I think are potentially exciting to look at the upper atmosphere and the escape of gas to space, and to look for methane in the Martian atmosphere.

DANKOSKY: Now, you're working on NASA's MAVEN mission, which is orbiting the Martian atmosphere. Is it happening at exactly the same time?

JAKOSKY: Well, we launch in 10 days. We're coming up on that now. We just put the spacecraft on top of the rocket this morning and we're getting ready to start the countdown. We'll be launching and going also to explore the upper atmosphere of Mars. We're interested in learning about the role that escape to space has played in changing the Martian climate over time.

DANKOSKY: So are you going to be working closely with the Mangalyaan mission from India?

JAKOSKY: Well, initially we've agreed to look downstream and collaborate when we get the data back. The measurements for both spacecrafts are somewhat complementary, and you can get a little bit more out of combining them than by looking at either data set separately. But I don't think we need to coordinate this far in advance. We don't need to plan simultaneous observations because I think each spacecraft will be looking all the time.

DANKOSKY: If you're excited about the Indian mission to Mars, you can call us at 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

So, Joan, a lot of people may not have known that there was an Indian Space Research Organization. It has been active for quite some time. What can you tell us about it?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, it has. It's over 50 years old and, until quite recently, in the last five to seven years, it was very, very pragmatically focused. On the ISRO website there's a message from Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who's considered to be the father of the Indian space program, where he talks about India not having the fantasy of competing with advanced countries in the exploration of the Moon or the planet, that their program was going to be second to none in the application of technology to the real problems of man and society.

But that changed about five years ago when they announced not just a human spaceflight program, but an ambitious planetary exploration program. And I think that's based on three reasons. First, it's a great sense of domestic pride for the Indian people. They see themselves as very science-oriented. Some people say science is their alterego.


DANKOSKY: Well, and what I'll do is I'll have you hold those other two points for just a few moments as we take a break. We'll be right back to talk more about these missions to Mars here on SCIENCE FRIDAY.


DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky in for Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about India's missions to Mars and also NASA's mission to Mars. Bruce Jakosky is principal investigator on NASA's MAVEN mission and a professor of planetary science at University of Colorado, Boulder. Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. You can join us at 1-800-989-8255.

Before our break, Joan, you were talking about why India decided to launch this Mars mission. You talked about it as a great point of national pride. What are some of the other reasons you think they're into this?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, beyond the domestic pride, I think - although the Indians would really play this down - there is an Asian version of keeping up with the Joneses going on. China has a very aggressive and broad-based space program, including planetary exploration and human spaceflight. And I think India saw China as getting too far ahead in the technology race, and a perception that goes with that of regional leadership.

And along with that, I guess the third reason would be just generally, on a geostrategic basis, this mission says take me seriously; that India should be taken seriously as a space technology player to be reckoned with.

DANKOSKY: One of the controversies around this is the Indian government maybe shouldn't be spending their money on a mission to Mars when there are so many people who have so little in that country.

JOHNSON-FREESE: That is absolutely the case and there's a lot of Indian dialogue going on the Web and on the blogosphere, with both sides being strongly rep- (technical difficulties).

DANKOSKY: Well, and Joan, your line is breaking up just a little bit. So we're going to try to reestablish that.

Bruce Jakosky, I'd like to go to you and sort of see if as a scientist you see this as another race to Mars with China and India and, of course, Russia and the United States. Are we back to some sort of a Cold War race to Mars now?

JAKOSKY: From my perspective, I don't think we're trying to race. I think that the science community welcomes all comers. We're interested in understanding more about Mars, more broadly more about our solar system and beyond. And anybody that can contribute is absolutely welcome. When we look to analyze data from the different space missions, we don't think about our data versus their data. We look to all of it to understand what can we learn about the planet and its history.

DANKOSKY: We've got a call from Savaram(ph) who's calling from Los Altos, California. Hi there, you're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SAVARAM: Hi. I was told that the Indian mission was very cheap, about $35 million or so. I was wondering, given that and given the fact that NASA spends a considerable higher amount on a Mars mission, why can't we collaborate with them on future such missions?

DANKOSKY: It's a great question. First of all, Bruce, what do you think?

JAKOSKY: I would love to collaborate. I would love to collaborate on missions with all of the players in the space community, and that would include the European Space Agency, India, Japan, China. We're looking to the country to provide the leadership on how to do that right now.

DANKOSKY: Of course, you know, the relations between the U.S. and China around technology, and whether or not researchers can work together, it's actually been a little bit of a cold war recently. What's going on, Bruce?

JAKOSKY: Well, we're seeing some direction from Congress to minimize the interactions with China. But beyond that, we are collaborating with the European Space Agency. We're collaborating with the Japanese; we share instruments, we share members of the science team. We're doing our part to enhance collaboration and cooperation.

DANKOSKY: Do you think that this directive from Congress will hurt progress, will actually hurt the ability of the scientific community to make some sort of leaps here?

JAKOSKY: It has to. Anytime you hinder collaboration or cooperation, it's a bad thing.

DANKOSKY: Let's go to a call from Harrison, who's calling from Utica, New York. Hi there, Harrison. Go ahead.

HARRISON: Hi. I was just hoping your guests could speak to the success of the Indian Moon mission in 2008, specifically in finding amounts of water on the Moon. And I'll take my question - answer off the air.

DANKOSKY: Thank you very much.

Joan, what do you know about it?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Actually this is probably more in the realm of someone at NASA, but it's - in terms of the scientific progress that was made.

DANKOSKY: Well, OK. Bruce, what you say?

JAKOSKY: Well, from what I hear about it, it was a tremendous success scientifically. It made substantial contributions to our understanding of lunar science. I'm looking to the same sort of result to come out of the Mangalyaan mission to see if we can learn more about Mars.

DANKOSKY: Joan, we lost your line for a little bit, but I'd love to have you weigh in on this ban in collaboration with China on space missions, how you think this might set things back, what it means for scientific cooperation between countries.

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, I think it's very counterproductive. Other countries in the world are certainly working with China, are very anxious to work with China. And the United States, in taking this position, again through Congress, that NASA can't bilaterally work with China just makes us the odd man out. And certainly keeps us from collaborating in space science areas where money is very tight and returns are certainly better when you can work together in collaborative ways. As was just pointed out, any time you can have two instruments or two spacecraft working together, you get far more out of it. So I think it's just hurting the United States in multiple ways.

DANKOSKY: What's China's reaction to all this has been?

JOHNSON-FREESE: China, of course, is very much in - out trying to collaborate wherever they can and takes the stance of, well, the United States first said we couldn't work with them because we had nothing to offer. Now, we have a great deal to offer. And they just see this as the United States constantly moving the bar for no reason that they can really understand. And it really has nothing to do with space. It's over human rights issues.

DANKOSKY: If you want to join our conversation about missions to Mars, both Indian and United States, 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. Rick is calling from Cincinnati. Hello there, Rick.

RICK: Hi. How are you doing?

DANKOSKY: Doing well. What's on your mind?

RICK: Well, I just want to wish everybody on the MAVEN mission good luck. I designed part of the MAVEN (unintelligible) radio, the Electra. Seeing as how I don't work at the companies that build it anymore, I always keep an interest in all the Mars missions (unintelligible) part of the work on radios like Phoenix, Spirit and Opportunity (unintelligible) MRO also.

DANKOSKY: Very good.

JAKOSKY: Thank you. We can use all the luck we can get.


JAKOSKY: As some of you know, Mars is not an easy target to get to. And we're hoping for the best for both MAVEN and Mangalyaan.

DANKOSKY: Well, talk more about that luck that's involved. I mean, obviously, it seems like a fairly obvious question, Bruce. It must be fairly complex to get something to orbit Mars. So how much luck is involved? I mean, how much certainty is there that something is going to work once you send it up?

JAKOSKY: Well, we don't have a great track record when it comes to Mars. Over half of the missions have worked but not as high a percentage as we would like. Of the nine orbiters that the United States has sent to Mars so far, three of them have failed. So that's about a two-thirds success rate.

The fact is that doing a space mission is incredibly complex. People work for years to design it. There are problems that crop up with every space mission that's been launched. And you just hope that you built a robust enough system to be able to work around them.

DANKOSKY: Given all that, it seems like this Indian orbiter that we've been talking about came about pretty quickly.

JAKOSKY: I'm impressed with that. I believe it was only a year and a half or two years from concept to launch, and that's really very impressive.

DANKOSKY: I want to go to Allan(ph), who's calling from Houston, Texas. Hello there, Allan.

ALLAN: Oh, thank you. I wanted to take the words of Dr. Mae C. Jemison, who's an educator and medical practicing and research. She's been in space, of course. She has founded an organization that your listeners may wish to log into and take a look at. It's called 100-Year Starship. That's 100yss.org. And another Houstonian, Dr. David Criswell, is developing - lunarsolarpower.org is the website - lunar solar power, which could bring down the cost of electricity all over the Earth. And another friend is promoting a solar hydrogen economy. It's the cleanest fuel for Earth, and that's at phoenixprojectfoundation.us.

DANKOSKY: Allan, thank you very much. And some good ideas in there. I think one of the things he's getting at, Bruce, is this idea that as we talked about a new space race or whatever you want to call it that now includes these big emerging economists like India and China, there's an awful lot that spun off from a space race. And I think there's potentially a really big economic boost that could come out of this if, indeed, there's some cooperation - all gets done right.

JAKOSKY: There is a lot of benefit that can come out of the technology development. But the reality is that we don't do the space program, we don't do the missions to Mars and elsewhere, in order to get the spin-offs. We do it for the national prestige, the science results, the science benefit, the excitement that it brings to students and getting them into science technology, engineering programs and careers. All these other things are really nice to have to come about as a result, but we're doing this for the program itself, I think.

DANKOSKY: Let's go to Chip, who's in East Haven, Connecticut. Hi there, Chip.

CHIP: Hi, John. How are you?

DANKOSKY: Doing well.

CHIP: Thanks for taking my call. I was wondering if the ban by Congress for collaborating with China isn't so much also about human rights issues, but also about the issue of China and, you know, stealing our technology, and the problem that's been going on in the private sector. Is that an issue in the scientific community or is everything shared anyway so that's not really an issue?

DANKOSKY: Joan, what do you say?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, the technology transfer is always an issue, but there is very little that the United States has a monopoly on any longer. So the idea that if we don't work with China, they won't get technology is really almost moot because China will be working with other countries. And China has also shown a great capability to develop what they need. There is certainly issues with regard to technology stuff from all areas, but I don't think that's really what's going on here in terms of this ban.

DANKOSKY: A last thing for you, Joan, what do you think we can expect from this Indian space program coming up next? Are they going to do more manned space flight?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, I think this mission was particularly important because this is something that China hasn't done. India will be able to claim it reached Mars before China. And again, in this regional space race, this is important. So I think you're going to see India continuing to pursue these kind of missions where they can get in the record book. And that's important to them. And they will do it and try to do it in a way that they can get science and have technology spin-offs. But I think, right now, what we're seeing or will see more and more are missions that will allow them to get the kind of publicity that they're getting from this mission.

DANKOSKY: Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Thanks so much for joining us.


DANKOSKY: And Bruce Jakosky is the principal investigator on NASA's MAVEN Mission to Mars, a professor of planetary science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Good luck on MAVEN.

JAKOSKY: Thank you, John.

DANKOSKY: I'm John Dankosky, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.