Nationalist euphoria is invariably conjured up when India conducts a seemingly sophisticated scientific experiment or makes bombs, missiles or submarines. India’s entry into a supposedly ‘select’ high-technology ‘club’ is uncritically celebrated, although its members are willing to rain mass death upon innocent civilians – as are all nuclear weapons-states.

Take the hype over the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission ‘Mangalyaan’. We are told the mission’s success or failure isn’t relevant. What matters is that it will stir up the ‘national spirit’ and inspire the youth. No price is too high for this, certainly not the mission’s cost of Rs460 crores.

This column argues that the Mars mission is basically irrelevant to space science. It will divert attention from the real technological challenges facing the space programme, and further distort India’s science and technology priorities. Worse, the mission will draw India into a dangerous missile race and space rivalry with China.

The media declared the mission successful even before Mangalyaan left the earth’s gravity-field. But it failed to reach the planned apogee (maximum height) of 100,000 km after the first three orbits around earth. ISRO didn’t anticipate the glitch, but says it has fixed the problem.

However, the real problems lie ahead: in raising the spacecraft’s orbit to 200,000 km, flinging it into inter-planetary space by December 1, and placing it in an orbit around Mars next September.

As the partially-failed 2008-09 Chadrayaan moon mission showed, ISRO hasn’t mastered the technology involved in such complex manoeuvres. Its past claims on this proved wrong. So the possibility of major snags in the Mangalyaan mission can’t be dismissed.

Mars missions worldwide have had a 50 percent-plus failure rate. Japan and China failed to place orbiters around Mars. ISRO hurriedly developed Mangalyaan in 15 months, whereas NASA’s or the European Space Agency’s development time is 36-48 months. Their spacecraft, unlike ISRO’s, mainly use previously-validated hardware.

However, even if all goes according to plan, Mangalyaan will be placed in a 366 km x 80,000 km orbit that’s so distant from Mars that it can observe very little, not even a fraction of what US and European Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express did. The 1,350-kg Mangalyaan only carries a small 13-kg scientific payload, compared to the Mars Express’s 116 kg.

This means Mangalyaan cannot add significantly to what’s already known about Martian topography or atmosphere. The US’s Curiosity – which roved on Mars’s surface – couldn’t find methane even in the parts-per-million range. It would be a miracle if Mangalyaan, a distant orbiter, finds methane traces, which would possibly, but not necessarily, suggest the existence of life.

Mangalyaan’s limitations basically arise from ISRO’s failure to complete the development of a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which can place heavy (2,000 kg-plus) satellites into high orbits. Despite working on the GSLV for 15 years, ISRO hasn’t succeeded in operationalising it.

Instead of completing the GSLV’s development and launching a bigger spacecraft which could carry a higher scientific payload, ISRO hurriedly used the much less powerful Polar SLV to launch Mangalyaan in a low-earth orbit. This greatly limited the speed Mangalyaan could acquire and constricted its abilities.

No less than former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair has criticised the Mars mission as “useless” and a “showpiece event” that hides the GSLV programme’s failures. According to him, no “new technology is involved” in Mangalyaan.

India’s Mars mission isn’t about science. It’s about spectacle. ISRO could at best gain from it some familiarity with deep space communication technology. Given the long distance to Mars, it would take six to 42 minutes for radio signals to travel to mission control.

Even here, ISRO will depend on NASA’s network of satellites and antennas for navigation and tracking support. Such cooperation has existed since the 2008 launch of the Chandrayaan-I moon orbiter. It’s not clear if ISRO can develop such capability itself.

GSLV development is a higher priority. It will allow ISRO to tap the global $2 billion market for commercial satellite launches.

Another priority is to resolve the problems that confronted Chandrayaan-I. Contrary to hype, the mission didn’t fulfil its stated goals. It was suspended in just 10 months, instead of the planned two years. There were early problems with Chandrayaan-I’s thermal systems, which caused overheating. Even more serious problems developed in its navigation system, which crippled its capacity to determine its orientation.

Then, its main sensor and computer packed up, and ground control lost contact with Chandrayaan-I, for reasons which ISRO has failed to investigate or explain. Surely, it was incumbent upon ISRO to resolve these issues rather than rush into a complicated mission like Mangalyaan.

Spectacular missions like Mangalyaan and India’s recent launches of military and surveillance satellites have another negative consequence. They raise concerns in China about India’s ‘ambitions’, and prompt a competitive response. It would be unwise for India to get into a space and anti-satellite (ASAT) missile race with China.

The danger is real. In 2007, China destroyed an old satellite with ASAT. India too has since tried to develop ASAT, according to Defence Research and Development Organisation chief VK Saraswat. In April 2012, he said the Agni-V missile delivers the boosting capability needed for ASAT weapons.

India is trying to integrate a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) kill vehicle into its missiles to develop a space-based ASAT capacity. It has conducted several test-flights of its BMD system wherein an ‘attacker’ missile at an altitude of 120 km was destroyed with an interceptor.

An India-China rivalry will further militarise space, a process recklessly begun by the US, which unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 to develop BMDs which can kill a missile in space before it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. India for decades opposed the militarisation of space. It’s now silent on this and trying to get BMD technology from the US and Israel.

No less important is the military angle of ISRO’s work – beyond benign, peaceful telecom satellites. India’s space and missile programmes are Siamese Twins. ISRO’s SLV rockets form the first stage of the Agni series of nuclear-capable missiles. The two long shared a propellant factory. ISRO has launched a number of communications and spy satellites for the armed services too.

Further expansion in ISRO’s clout thus has military implications. ISRO, with the Department of Atomic Energy and DRDO, already soaks up an unconscionable two-thirds of India’s S&T spending. Diverting yet more funds to ISRO’s fanciful projects means starving Indian science of resources and speeding up its decline in global terms.

That decline has been stark. For decades, India was the Third World’s unquestioned ‘science superpower’. In 1980, it globally held the eight position in the number of papers (about 15,000) published in peer-reviewed journals, while China with under 1,000 papers was a distant No 15. By 2000, China moved to No 9, with almost twice as many papers as India, now down at No 15.

Since then, China’s scientific output has risen 600 percent, but India’s only 30 percent. India now faces tough competition even from Brazil and Taiwan, not to mention South Korea, Australia and the Netherlands. This demands a massive shift in India’s S&T priorities. The Mars mission will impede that shift.