On the morning of September 24, 2014 (India time), the Mangalyaan-1 space probe entered into orbit of Mars. Mangalyaan-1 was designed and built in India, financed by Indian taxpayers, and launched on an Indian PSLV rocket from Shriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Over the course of a month, the probe orbited the Earth, progressively climbing to higher orbits before using Earth’s gravity to slingshot it toward Mars. When Mangalyaan finally reached Mars almost eleven months later, it became the first probe built in Asia to reach the Red Planet. This was also the first time that any nation successfully sent a probe to Mars on their first attempt.

The Indian media was abuzz over this distinctive national accomplishment. Commentators praised the engineers and scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for reaching Mars cheaply and efficiently, but still flawlessly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed the goings-on at mission control in Bangalore, and then delivered a televised speech to a crowd of ISRO engineers. His speech, delivered partly in English and partly in Hindi, represents the rhetoric surrounding Mangalyaan’s successful arrival at Mars (sorry, no subtitles):

PM Modi emphasized that the probe was built “indigenously and upon Indian effort, spreading from Bangalore to Bhubaneshwar, and Faridabad to Rajkot”—for less than the cost of a Hollywood movie. The rhetoric of indigeneity and technological self-reliance is more than fifty years old. It was first articulated in the Third Five-Year Plan (issued in 1961), which stated that “India’s economy must not only expand rapidly, but must, at the same time, become self-reliant and self-generating.”

This proved to be an elusive goal. Certain industries became fully indigenous, but other remained out of India’s grasp. India’s military-industrial complex has so far failed to satisfy the nation’s needs, and India became, and remains, the world’s largest arms importer. Where India has succeeded in indigenization is in high-tech, big-science fields. India makes its own nuclear reactors and space probes, but still has to import more mundane equipment such as passenger jets.

Itty Abraham argues in The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb that when India became a nuclear power in 1974, it was too late to matter.1 In other words, by 1974 the ability to detonate a nuclear warhead no longer entitled a nation to membership in the elite club of the most technologically-sophisticated nations. Sadly, this seems to be the case for India’s space accomplishments as well. In his speech at ISRO, PM Modi declared, “With this particular success, ISRO joins an elite group of only three other agencies worldwide to have successfully reached the Red Planet.” True as this may be, the world seems not to have taken much notice. Although the Indian media was thrilled by Mangalyaan’s arrival at Mars, the American media, at least, has remained unmoved. Mangalyaan was not even mentioned in today’s issue of the New York Times.

  1. Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy, and the Postcolonial State (London: Zed Books, 1998), 166. []