Exploring space cheaply

From an editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday:

The sum of $74 million doesn’t go as far as it used to: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell earned that amount in just the past two years.

In India, however, $74 million is all that’s needed to send a satellite into orbit around Mars.

Determined to explore the red planet ahead of rival China – and to demonstrate its technical prowess – the world’s second-most populous country (last) week succeeded in delivering its Mars orbiter to the intended destination 420 million miles away.

For $74 million. NASA expects to spend nine times more on its latest (and much more complex) Mars program.

India kept the costs of its space shot low by adapting cheap, indigenous technology, limiting the payload to 33 pounds and using the Earth’s gravity to slingshot its craft out of orbit instead of powering through with a larger, more expensive rocket.

Critics have questioned how India can justify spending one dime on a Mars craft when hundreds of millions of Indians live in poverty. We’re inclined to applaud the thrift, at least. There’s a lesson here for NASA, for any government agency or private enterprise that seeks to make commercial and scientific advances in space. Sending a satellite aloft can be a low-budget affair.