These Scientists Sent a Rocket to Mars for Less Than It Cost to Make “The Martian”
And they happen to be women. Indian women, for that matter.
By Ipsita Agarwal
Mar 17 2017
On November 5, 2013, a rocket launched toward Mars. It was India’s first interplanetary mission, Mangalyaan, and a terrific gamble. Only 40 percent of missions sent to Mars by major space organizations — NASA, Russia’s, Japan’s, or China’s — had ever been a success. No space organization had succeeded on its first attempt. What’s more, India’s space organization, ISRO, had very little funding: while NASA’s Mars probe, Maven, cost $651 million, the budget for this mission was $74 million. In comparison, the budget for the movie “The Martian” was $108 million. Oh, and ISRO sent off its rocket only 18 months since work on it began.
A few months and several million kilometers later, the orbiter prepared to enter Mars’ gravity. This was a critical moment. If the orbiter entered Mars’ gravity at the wrong angle, off by so much as one degree, it would either crash onto the surface of Mars or fly right past it, lost in the emptiness of space.
Back on Earth, its team of scientists and engineers waited for a signal from the orbiter. Mission designer Ritu Karidhal had worked 48 hours straight, fueled by anticipation. As a child, Minal Rohit had watched space missions on TV. Now, Minal waited for news on the orbiter she and her colleague, Moumita Dutta, had helped engineer.
When the signal finally arrived, the mission control room broke into cheers. If you work in such a room, deputy operations director, Nandini Harinath, says, “you no longer need to watch a thriller movie to feel the thrill in life. You feel it in your day-to-day work.”
This was not the only success of the mission. An image of the scientists celebrating in the mission control room went viral. Girls in India and beyond gained new heroes: the kind that wear sarees and tie flowers in their hair, and send rockets into space.
The rocket is going to leave. It’s not going to wait for anyone.
When Moumita Dutta was in the ninth grade, she studied light and found it fascinating. That obsession led to her study of engineering. She was in the eastern city of Kolkata, India, in 2006, when she read in the newspaper that India was preparing to launch its first moon mission. It was a chance to make up for a national opportunity India had missed a half century earlier. ISRO had been established in the late ’60s, in the thick on the moon race. But as a space organization in a newly independent country with extremely limited resources, the agency never participated in it. India’s 2008 mission to the Moon was a long time in the making, as historic as it was groundbreaking. “I thought the people who worked on it were so fortunate.” Moumita left the offer of a PhD abroad and moved halfway across the country to join ISRO in its mission to the Moon.
When ISRO announced the Mars mission in 2012, its primary objective was to build a capability to enter Mars’ gravity, and once there, conduct scientific experiments. The mission, especially considering the country’s limited resources, would have to be completed in record time. The rocket had to be launched when the distance between Earth and Mars was shortest, in mid-2013: only 18 months to plan, build, and test everything onboard. The orbiter had to enter an elliptical orbit around Mars from behind the planet, cutting off all communication with Earth at the most crucial stage in the mission. That would require full autonomous capability to be developed to keep it functioning. The orbiter could carry 5 sensors to carry out scientific experiments. The caveat: they would have to weigh under 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds, put together.
Moumita knew sensors. Now, she was tasked with building and testing a first-of-its-kind scientific instrument to detect methane on Mars.