This morning, India successfully launched a rocket to Mars. Christened Mangalyaan, or Mars vehicle, the rocket is part of a scientific mission that cost a grand total of Rs 4.5 billion, or $73 million. In terms of the space business, that's a bargain. By contrast, NASA's next Mars mission will cost $671 million and do the same thing as India's craft: orbit the red planet collecting data.
Mangalyaan is an impressive achievement, both scientific and budgetary. But as several news reports have noted, India remains an extremely poor country with many millions still going hungry. One piece on a U.S. site, headlined "India Swears Its Redundant, Mega-Priced Mars Probe Is Totally Worth It," is explicit: "How does a country with one of the lowest development levels in the world justify spending on a space program?" This is as familiar and predictable a formulation as the articles by foreign correspondents that begin by calling India a "land of contrasts" and note with wonderment the sight of slums and great luxury apartments existing side by side.
There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally and in the comity of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.
Indeed, India’s space research and other advanced technological efforts are what birthed its technology industry. Bangalore did not become a tech hub simply because of its pleasant weather and lovely gardens. It is the home of ISRO, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and other high-tech industries that created an environment for and pool of engineers.
Questioning a poor country’s decision to launch a space program also implicitly ignores the fact that rich countries have poor people too. In 1962, President John F Kennedy declared to Americans that "we choose to go to the moon." That year, 38.6 million Americans, or 21 percent of the nation, lived below the poverty line. Last year, it was still 15 percent.
This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.