Mars Mission Revisited

This is a follow-on piece in response to some of the comments to my piece (read it here) on the Indian Mars probe that India launched a few weeks ago. Here it is, for the record.

Mars Mission Revisited
{Previously published on Niti Central on Nov 19th.}

My column of November 10 criticising the Indian mission to Mars met with some opposition which was not surprising. The push-back was predictable and I had anticipated the reasons that would be advanced and addressed them in the piece itself.

My argument against the mission – and other such ventures – was predicated on the simple notion that everything we do has an opportunity cost. Therefore it is simply not sufficient to point to only the benefits of a specific action to justify undertaking it; one has to compare those benefits with the benefits of alternate actions which would be precluded by the action.

That the mission has obvious benefits – building capacity, advancing knowledge, etc – is not in dispute. What needs examination is whether it is the best way to advance those objectives. Technological capacity, even in very narrowly defined fields, can be built through a variety of tasks, not just through one thing. Choosing among them is part of a sensible approach to maximising benefits.

Thus if the objective is to build launch capacity, missions to Mars cannot be the only way of doing it. Launch commercial satellites. Ferry cargo to the international space station. There are alternative ways.

One comment pointed out that “a tremendous push for advanced solar technology can come from a rover like object which would exclusively rely on solar panels for its activities under very rough conditions.” That bit illustrates the point I make about alternative means of building capacity. Sure, you can send a mission to Mars and figure out how to build robust solar technology. But why? It is not as if rough conditions cannot be duplicated on Earth.

Suppose you wanted to figure out the effects of 9,000 metre altitude on humans. Would you recommend an expedition to climb Mt Everest which would involve ferrying people and equipment there, or would you recommend duplicating the atmospheric conditions in a lab to do the study?

One comment said that he has not seen a more ignorant article. “The author clearly has no idea how scientific advances happen. From diapers to clean rooms used in making medicines all are by products of space research. 450 crore rupees is less than the cost of opening ceremony of the Delhi commonwealth games.” It is too common to conflate the scientific with the technological but I shall not address it here. I note the use of what can be called the “collateral” argument for doing something.

You can never do only one thing. It is sometimes termed as the First Law of Ecology. Meaning regardless of your primary or your only objective, anything you do will have consequences that you don’t intend or anticipate doing. Collateral damage is the term used when non-combatants are killed in battles.

But justifying something – even beneficial actions – on the collateral fallouts is inefficient and insufficient. Only if the benefits of doing something do not justify the costs, only then does one have to resort to adding up the supposed collateral benefits. It is weak position to have to defend.

Justifying the mission based on cost comparisons with something entirely different is hard to comprehend. Using the cost of the Common Wealth Games in New Delhi to justify the Mars mission is a surreal non sequitur.

Then there’s the soft-power argument made in one comment. “Mars mission is about having soft power . . . It is about giving a message we are equal to the developed countries in terms of research.” But how about making real progress in the lives of people instead of projecting soft power, whatever that is.

One commenter was quite blunt. “A useless cynical, intellectually challenged and unoriginal article. In line with patronizing Western attitude of how India should act. Such lack of self-confidence and misplaced priority will continue to delay maturity of Indian self-perception.” It’s the old “agent of the West” tactic to discredit the argument.

I am not interested in who advances the argument. I do not care about the provenance – if it makes sense, I would accept it. I would not immediately start throwing rocks in our harbor just because an enemy holds that throwing rocks in the harbor is a bad idea.

All sorts of arguments have been advanced by the proponents of the mission but nothing that I have not addressed in the column. However, I did not make the argument that is based on a general principle. It is this: if you are in favor of doing something, do it yourself. That is, vote with your pocket. If you want to spend on missions to Mars, put your money where your mouth is.

Why not let the government use tax revenues to do it? Because taxes should only fund those activities that are not discretionary – the provision of public goods and such other things that the market is even theoretically incapable of providing without public support.

If the society feels that extra-planetary missions are important, it can easily be arranged that a fund is created into which people can voluntarily contribute. This involves no coercion and is completely consistent with the freedom of individuals to spend their money as they see fit. For the important bits that must be done but will not be done by the market, there’s the government; for everything else, there’s MasterCard for you.

4 thoughts on “Mars Mission Revisited

  1. “My argument against the mission – and other such ventures – was predicated on the simple notion that everything we do has an opportunity cost.” – What exactly are these “other such ventures” that you are against? Where have you raised concerns?

    “..everything we do has an opportunity cost” – What is “everything”? Did common wealth games have an opportunity cost? Do Bollywood movies have an opportunity cost? Are they justified? If they are not (or if they are), why did you not voice your concerns then and why do you consider just the Mars mission a waste?

    “Thus if the objective is to build launch capacity, missions to Mars cannot be the only way of doing it. Launch commercial satellites. Ferry cargo to the international space station. There are alternative ways.” – What are these alternative ways? When you are critical about something like Mars mission and calling it a waste, you better give a well researched article with alternate possibilities instead of half-baked responses like “..this cannot be the only way of doing it”. Are you guessing? Do you definitely know there is another way of doing it?

    “Justifying the mission based on cost comparisons with something entirely different is hard to comprehend” – Please explain why it is hard to comprehend. Poverty is also something entirely different from Mars mission. If those two can be linked, why can’t the cost of common wealth games and bollywood movies be brought up in the same argument?

    “But how about making real progress in the lives of people” – Real progress, you say? It’s that easy, isn’t it? “I too have been guilty of throwing trash on the streets but in my defence I can say that it was only because the street was already littered and only because I could not find any trash can in sight” – This line is from your own article. You see the gap in logic? _You_ cannot find any trash can in sight. _You_ threw trash only because the street was already littered. How do you think _you_ are qualified to talk about other people littering? How hard is it to wrap the waste in a piece of paper or cloth and trash it when you spot a trash can? But that’s not even the humor here. The funny thing is you think you have the authority to question, no, mock others about making real progress. You stopped progress in some little way when you threw the trash, you realize that don’t you?

    “It’s the old “agent of the West” tactic to discredit the argument.” – It would not be if you were living in India or even capable of understanding the real conditions in India before you make an argument. I do not think you have a complete understanding of what it takes to live in India every day. With a mere $73 million, launching something like this indigenously is an achievement. It is an inspiration to many, to begin with. An appreciation for it is not possible if you have a western view of how poverty-stricken developing country should focus on becoming rich first or even building more toilets before aspiring for bigger things. “Western” not just because you do not live in India, but also because you could not possibly understand that on the same day you argue with an incompetent, moronic airtel employee and think whole of India is scammy you also come across a daily wager that couldn’t possibly be more empathetic to a stranger.

    The main criticism I have for you is not for calling the Mars mission a waste, but not publishing a well-researched sound article on why it is so and what you think as the alternatives.

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  2. Agreed there are some straw-man arguments in the comments. A regular reader of your blog can hardly accuse you of being a mouthpiece of the West. And point taken on the opportunity cost. There are indeed different ways of building capacity. Nevertheless that doesn’t validate your argument. One could argue that there is no point in building the capacity – might as well piggy-back on technological progress elsewhere (as India has broadly done). The nations which have progressed have not always made the opportunity cost calculus. Think about the development of modern physics during the Weimar Republic which occurred against the backdrop of hyper-inflation and abject misery. It wasn’t costless. It wasn’t just Heisenberg and other theoreticians scratching a few things on paper. There was relatively expensive experimental physics. R&D…engineering. It made post War Germany the epicentre of scientific progress till the Nazis came and smashed it all to bits. There are many ways the Indian govt spends its money that should raise one’s ire. Recapitalising Air-India yet again for instance. But the Mars mission isn’t one of them. It is something good and worthy in the midst of the inferno that is India and as Italo Calvino said, we need to “seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

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  3. I just can’t agree more with you on how and why this mission is a perfect example for how priorities when mixed up can lead to a pseudo sense of pride.

    I’m totally convinced that India’s space program is not only essential but also a testimonial to our technological prowess, in so far as the objectives are to aid weather forecasting, remote sensing, communication and a host of other benefits we have already demonstrated and derived. As far as understanding whether lifeforms existed in Mars many centuries ago, is IMHO, a totally uncalled for extravagance for a country reeling with illiteracy, poor infrastructure and a host of other fundamental issues.

    The point, like you rightly made, is not of how much it cost us or how relatively less expensive it was for us to achieve this feat, but simply that of the opportunity cost.

    On the Mumbai Bandra sea link costing considerably more, let’s not forget the sheer convenience it brings to millions daily.

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