(Update: I'm feeling much, much better. Space aliens did not burst from my stomach and it turns out Indian hospitals are even more efficient in some ways than American ones-- testing, pharmacy, making appointments, but absolutely NOT in the area of communicating. While sick, I had a lot of time to read and research the Indian space program. The following represents some of the fruits of my digging around on the ol interwebs...)
If you read my title and your first thought was “of all countries on Earth, why does India, a country with half a billion poor people dying of disease, hunger and terrible living conditions, waste money on space?” … you were about to make a horribly ignorant generalization.
So let me stop you right there before you do that. India’s space program was created for the purpose of DEVELOPING THE POOR AREAS OF THE COUNTRY.
I shit you not. And India’s space program isn’t just helping lift the country out of poverty by granting a few lucky kids a chance to work in high-tech government labs (though it’s doing that, too), it was CREATED SPECIFICALLY TO HELP THE PEOPLE OF INDIA.
I’m YELLING to MAKE THIS POINT because it seems that nearly everyone I talk to HAS THE WRONG IDEA ABOUT WHAT SPACE IS ALL ABOUT.
Ok, I’m done yelling.
I’m mad because I recently came across a Guardian article dealing with criticism in the UK for continuing to give aid to India (Britain gives around $450 million a year to India, nine times more aid than the U.S.).
(Part of that has gotta be the guilt over nearly 200 years of colonial rule and cruel exploitation of the people in various manners all over the Indian subcontinent… right?)
Nearly all the comments claimed how immoral it was for the Indian government to accept money from Britain because it was also spending lavish amounts on both its nuclear and space programs. The Brits were outraged. They seemed to say: If they have the balls to waste money on space, why are we funding them with aid to alleviate poverty?
So it made me wonder: should the fact that India has a space program be a valid reason to claim it’s immoral for the country to accept foreign aid from a developed nation?
Let’s take a look at some of the things India spends its money on in space.
- Remote Sensing: Today, India operates one of the largest and most advanced remote sensing satellite constellations of any country on Earth. They’ve got 11 satellites pointing at Earth, operating in a system that’s accurate down to about one meter. The system is used to monitor and detect resources: it helps find well water in dry regions of India, so far saving the government’s drill boring program $100 million. They also use it to project crop yields, the health of fisheries, pest infestations, agricultural diseases, flood forecasting, urban planning, and road construction. Satellites are also used for gathering meteorological data—for understanding daily weather and longer-range climatic patterns, creating an alarm system for disaster preparation (did you know 95% of all deaths from worldwide natural disasters happen in the least developed countries in the world?!?), and providing a system for coordinated search and rescue efforts on land, sea and air.
(Speaking of natural disasters and space, I just learned that NASA is involved with something called the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which is an international network that “provides timely and rigorous early warning and vulnerability information on emerging and evolving food security issues.” It isn’t in India, but is another example of space being used to help people in need. NASA satellite data and computer modeling programs analyze “data on rainfall, vegetation, reservoir height and other climate factors” to “help public health officials anticipate famine and speed up the delivery of food supplies and humanitarian aid to populations in critical need.” Awesome.)
- Tele-education: In 1974, NASA moved its ATS-6 satellite over to India for about a year to undertake a special experiment (considered the “largest sociological experiment in history”): see what satellites can do if used in the service of broadcasting educational television to poor communities in India. Jointly developed by the U.S. and India, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) ran for about a year, broadcasting 1,200 hours of programs to 2,400 villages, reaching about five million people. Subjects included science education for kids, agriculture, health, hygiene, family planning, rural development, and literacy. Ground sets to receive the signals were constructed out of chicken wire and signal converters. TV sets were distributed, mainly to schools. 600-800 people crowded around a single television set.
Today, because of investments made to develop autonomy in its aerospace sector, India can launch its own satellites. The country’s EDUSAT program connects about 55000 schools and colleges, reaching 15 million students every year.
- Tele-medicine: India’s cities have world-class hospitals and doctors, but what about the roughly 850 million people living in rural villages? This is where the concept of tele-medicine comes in. Tele-medicine brings specialist doctors from cities into villages via satellite communications and mobile telemedicine units, or “clinics-on-wheels.” These have satellite dishes to connect doctors to patients who can’t afford to travel or aren’t healthy enough to make the journey themselves to the city hospitals. Today, Indian satellites have enabled a network of 382 hospitals with telemedicine capability. Of those 382, 306 are classified as remote/rural/district hospital/health centers, 16 are mobile telemedicine units and these are connected to 60 specialty hospitals. According to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the mobile units provide medical diagnoses and “are extensively used for tele-ophthalmology, diabetic screening, mammography, childcare and community health.”
Oh yeah, one more thing. All the software, hardware, communications equipment and satellite bandwidth is funded through the Department of Space and 150,000 people are benefitting from this system every year.
These are just a few examples of why India is investing in space (and by the way, NASA is involved in a lot of these things, too). Why are we so quick to think investments in space have so little to do with the developing world?
It’s because if you’re like most people, space program = an expensive, potentially (but not always) scientifically rewarding pursuit yielding who-knows-what-gee-wiz facts about the universe, engaged in by highly educated people in wealthy, western nations in an exclusive, secretive effort. And that costs a ton of money, blah blah blah.
Well, it really doesn’t cost a lot of money (NASA’s budget is about half of one percent of the U.S. government’s total spending and it PAYS FOR ITSELF AND THEN SOME, yielding far more return than most government investments because it directly fuels technological innovation, growth of high-tech industries, and economic growth both locally and nationally)… but that’s for another post.
And yes, India also invests in pure scientific and exploration missions, including an upcoming mission to land a rover on the moon, another to investigate Mars, and an initiative to launch people into space… all for less than 10% of their total budget of about $1.3 billion (which, itself, is about 7.5% of NASA’s total budget and also about half of one percent of India’s entire government budget… just like us).
My points here are that: 1) this is small change and 2) investing in space is a GOOD THING!!! Even, and perhaps especially, in the developing world. It's a good thing economically, scientifically, inspirationally (is that a word?) and, as I started this post YELLING ABOUT, developmentally.
I guess I’d probably be outraged too if I was British and didn’t know what India’s space program was all about. I'm not saying they should or shouldn't be giving aid-- I just think using the argument that they have a space program as justification on why they don't need foreign aid is absolutely ridiculous. The nuclear program is a different story (also perhaps somewhat justifiable considering the reality of national security threats of bordering Pakistan and China, but that's a slippery slope and I’ll save that one for another post, too).
Anyway, these are the sorts of things I’ve been reading while lying in bed over the last two weeks recovering from Delhi Belly, induced by bad rice biryani. I’ve got a lot more research to go and I’m hoping to get out to some of these villages while I’m here to see some of the remote sensing, tele-medicine, -communications, and –education programs in person, meet these people whom have been declared the objects of such arguments and speculations, and understand the true impacts of not just space development, but real human development.
Until then, you’re damn right India has a space program.