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The Moonshot Heard Round the World

Author: Ben Cohen
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Date: August 30, 2023
URL:    https://www.wsj.com/science/space-astronomy/india-moon-landing-chandrayaan-3-budget-dda2e71

What are the lessons of India’s frugal moon landing for any business on Earth?

India’s Chandrayaan-3 lifted off last month, on its way to a successful landing near the lunar south pole.

You can’t make a giant leap without taking small steps.

When the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft touched down on the moon last week, India joined the U.S., Russia and China as the only nations to land on the lunar surface. It was also the first to reach the south pole only days after Russia crashed on its way there. And its victory in the race to previously unexplored frontiers was a spectacular achievement for this nation of 1.4 billion people.

But the most remarkable thing about India getting to the moon was how it got there: on a budget.

India spends billions of dollars less annually on space than Russia, while U.S. spending is in a different orbit altogether. This bargain of a mission cost an estimated $70 million—pocket change for other nations. By cheaply going where no country had gone before, India provided a model of success for any business.

So it wasn’t long after the lander named Vikram arrived on the moon that reporters asked the head of the country’s space agency how India did it.

“I don’t want to explain all the secrets,” said S. Somanath, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s chairman, “because if I tell the secrets, others will learn and they will become very cost-effective.”

That only made me more curious about the secrets of India’s space program—and what others can learn from its moonshot.

Some of those cost-effective measures are not exactly secretive. India pays rocket scientists significantly less than other countries with similar aspirations. The unmanned Chandrayaan-3 blasted off with a small launch vehicle and light payload before getting a lift from gravity and following a long and winding road to the moon. It piggybacked on technological breakthroughs developed by the U.S., Russia and others that have chosen the moon. And this mission designed to maximize efficiency also saved money because, like the Apollo program, it was more about fostering national pride than advancing science. By reducing the mission’s complexity, India boosted its probability of success.

But it’s still an incredible milestone for the world’s most populous country, whose per-capita GDP is also one of the lowest. Last year, the U.S. government funded NASA with $24 billion and spent a total of $69 billion on space, or 0.28% of the nation’s gross-domestic product, according to the Space Foundation. India’s total space budget of $1.3 billion was 0.04% of its GDP. And it had plenty of experience running frugal missions before this one. In fact, India’s first Mars orbiter in 2014 came with a lower price tag than the 2015 blockbuster “The Martian.” It also landed on the moon for less than it costs Hollywood to make movies about the moon.

There are many obvious ways that financial restrictions can be a competitive disadvantage. What’s less obvious is how they might work to an organization’s advantage.

They can breed creativity, spur innovation and give people no choice but to make the most of their limited resources.

“I’ve always enjoyed working on missions that are cost-constrained,” said Robert Braun, the head of space exploration at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the former chief technologist of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

APL performed last year’s bonkers Double Asteroid Redirection Test on behalf of NASA, and Braun calls the $325 million operation “among the lowest-cost planetary-science missions that the U.S. has done.” The constraints forced scientists to discuss trade-offs and weigh financial and schedule costs against technical benefits in design meetings long before they engineered a space collision and rearranged the cosmos. The mission was more likely to succeed because of the choices they made in those difficult conversations, he said.

Another way that teams in space, sports and so many other industries squeeze value from every last penny—or rupee—is by taking the lessons from one mission and applying them to the next. This piecemeal approach is how progress happens.

“An incremental, step-by-step approach is the best way to be successful in things that are super hard,” Braun told me. “Like landing on another planet.”

Things that are super hard don’t happen overnight. It may have taken a few days for meme stocks to get to the moon, but it took India decades.

The lunar surface seemed light years away when India’s space program took flight in 1963 in a fishing village and scientists operated from the local church. When the country’s Department of Space was officially established in 1972, the engineers worked out of sheds with corrugated roofs and watched pigeons fly overhead, as The Wall Street Journal’s Tripti Lahiri reported in this revealing piece.

India’s first launch involved an American rocket, Russian computers and a French payload, according to an ISRO history called “From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet.” But importing so much equipment was impractical. And soon it was impossible. International sanctions after India’s 1998 nuclear tests meant ISRO had to rely on the inexpensive domestic labor market for crucial parts. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for a space agency born in a church. “The indigenization programme became invigorated,” the historians wrote. India’s equipment now comes from India.

To understand the feisty nature of India’s space program, it helps to know the Hindi word jugaad, says Ram Jakhu, a professor of space law at McGill University in Canada. It refers to cheap and unconventional ingenuity—a way of scraping together resources to conquer scarcity. Basically, a hack. There’s an iconic photo of ISRO’s earliest scientists carrying rocket parts on a bicycle. That kind of clever workaround is classic jugaad. They now have safer methods of transportation, but the idea remains with ISRO to this day. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s former head of science, told me that he appreciates how India finds solutions to common problems that are simple and no less effective.

India’s thrifty approach means that it has to make important, tricky decisions in the beginning stages of a project. “ISRO doesn’t have the flexibility of making four or five prototypes,” said Ankit Patel, whose company supplies the agency with fasteners, nuts and bolts. “They make one or two.” The space program also devotes more of its workforce to fewer projects, which allows the agency to move quickly on the missions it does prioritize. “Once they focus,” Zurbuchen said, “they go like hell.”

Landing on the moon requires hundreds of things that have been simulated thousands of times to go right on the very first try. With no margin for error, it’s essential to mitigate risks. But space is inherently risky. India’s program tends to be aggressive in how it values risk and picks the ones that are worth the reward. If they have to cut corners, they know which corners to cut.

India is also excellent at learning from its failures. It has to be. It can’t afford to let one go to waste.

When its Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle crashed on its maiden voyage in the late 1980s, it was a national tragedy almost as devastating as a cricket loss. ISRO convened a Failure Analysis Committee, which studied 37 potential explanations but couldn’t identify the source of error. The next attempt splashed into the Bay of Bengal again. This time, the failure analysts were supplemented by an Expert Review Panel, and they spent a year trying to crack the mystery. They eventually pinned the failure on two glitches that lasted for one second.

Fixing that rocket helped ISRO develop the rocket for India’s first lunar probe: Chandrayaan-1. It launched in 2008, spent nearly a year in orbit before losing contact and paved the way for Chandrayaan-2 in 2019. That spacecraft found itself tantalizingly close to the moon before crashing into the lunar surface because of a last-second software error.

It failed, but it wasn’t a total failure. There is no Chandrayaan-3 without 1 and 2. The challenging engineering that got ISRO really, really close to the moon helped drive down the price of getting back there and trying again.

“You’re going to see this for all the different companies and countries going to the moon,” said Jim Bridenstine, the former head of NASA. “Over time, as we learn more, the cost goes down.” 

Every space mission is made possible by prior missions—and not just the successful ones. This spacecraft transcending the limits of the sky and touching down on the moon reminded those of us on Earth how powerful incremental progress can be.

It’s what mankind has known since Neil Armstrong took a small step and one giant leap of his own.

 

-Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com

 
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