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India launches 101st space mission, and looks to Mars

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ISRO’s budget is barely 7.5 percent the size of NASA, but it has been growing every year since the early 2000s, jumping from $591 million in 2004-05 to $1.3 billion in 2012-2013.

“I can think of no other major space program in the world that has enjoyed such a level of sustained annual budgetary growth,” says Asif Siddiqi, an associate professor of history at Fordham University, who is working on a book on the Indian space program.

The budget expansion parallels India’s economic growth in the past decade, notes Mr. Siddiqi. And high-profile successes have also helped boost government support for ISRO, he says.

Shift in mission

For five decades, ISRO stuck close to founder Vikram Sarabhai’s vision to reject “the fantasy of competing with economically advanced countries" to explore the moon and instead use space technology to improve the lives of ordinary people.

The result: India has built one of the largest communication satellite systems –  used to support telemedicine and tele-education programs for rural areas – and one of the world’s best remote sensing systems, which helps with forecasting the weather and monitoring natural resources, including locating water sources.

But the agency’s recent forays into space exploration – including the 2008 Chandrayan 1 lunar probe and proposed missions to the sun – and reconnaissance satellites is a “fundamental shift” from Sarabhai’s “space for development” agenda, says Siddiqi. 

India’s uncertainty about that shift was evident last month with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement of the Mars mission, called Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for “To Mars”), which was met with mixed response. The mission, timed to coincide with the next window when the planet is closest to earth, is intended to help collect data on methane sources.

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