How India landed on the moon and flew to Mars at a fraction of the cost of NASA and Russia missions
- India is the first to ever land near the moon's south pole and it succeeded without breaking the bank.
- The Chandrayaan-3 moon mission cost far less than Russia's moon mission or NASA's planned rover.
India's first moon landing, which touched down near the lunar south pole on August 23, was both historic and budget-friendly.
At about $74 million, India's moon mission was less than half the cost of Russia's south-pole lander ($200 million), which misfired its engines and crashed on August 20, as well as the estimated budget of NASA's planned VIPER rover to the lunar south pole ($433.5 million).
The Indian mission, called Chandrayaan-3, which is the first spacecraft to ever touch down near the moon's south pole, was also cheaper than the Hollywood space blockbusters "Gravity" ($100 million), "The Martian" ($108 million), and "Interstellar" ($165 million).
Asked how they managed to keep costs so low, S. Somanath, the director of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), told reporters with a laugh: "I won't disclose such secrets. We don't want everyone else to become so cost-effective," according to the New York Times.
Unlike NASA, which is required to publish detailed budget proposals, India has shared very little information about its budgeting. So, it's unclear what went into the $74 million cost estimate.
That's also a conversion from Indian currency, rupees, so the comparison isn't apples to apples.
Still, the small price tag can be partially explained by the small size and scope of the mission, and the fact that it was a redo of an earlier flight.
Small spacecraft, small costs
India's main strategy for being frugal on the moon seems to be that it kept the spacecraft small.
Weighing in at just 1,752 kilograms, according to ISRO, Chandrayaan-3 was likely relatively cheap to launch.
"Small landers imply smaller launch vehicles, smaller components, less materials," Robert Braun, head of space exploration at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, told Insider. "If the scope of the mission is small, then the cost is likely to be small."
That's a lesson that ISRO first learned in 2014, when they became the first country to successfully insert a spacecraft in Mars orbit on the first try.
By keeping the payload light, adapting technologies ISRO had used before, and keeping workers' salaries lean, Wired reported, the agency managed to keep the receipt for the Mars mission to $74 million. (Same as Chandrayaan-3. Weird coincidence!)
This is markedly different from how NASA's Mars orbiter, MAVEN, operated.
India "kept it small," Andrew Coates, a physics professor who has worked on European and NASA Mars missions, told the BBC in 2014. "The payload weighs only about 15 kg. Compare that with the complexity in the payload in MAVEN and that will explain a lot about the cost."
The proof of concept may lie in comparing the programs' receipts. The MAVEN mission cost NASA $582.5 million, according to the Planetary Society.
But Chandrayaan-3 was actually heavier than Russia's failed mission, called Luna-25, which weighed about 1,237 kg by the time it reached lunar orbit, according to Anatoly Zak, an English-language reporter covering Russia's space programs.
That's where India's other strategy may come in to beat out Russia's price tag.
Start small and build step by step, to the moon and beyond
This wasn't India's first attempt to land near the moon's south pole. A previous mission, Chandrayaan-2, crashed there in 2019.
The costs of research, development, and testing that went into that first attempt may not be included in the cost of Chandrayaan-3.
"They've approached their lunar program as a series of missions," Braun said. "That is a way of managing cost."
India's moon program began with Chandrayaan-1, which sent a spacecraft into lunar orbit and dropped a hard-impact probe to intentionally crash into the lunar surface.
That's a much easier and cheaper mission to start building new capabilities, then build up to a soft landing and a small rover.
NASA has taken a similar approach to Mars, and it has "worked very well," Braun said.
Compare that to Russia's Luna-25 mission. It was the country's first mission to the moon since the 1970s and the fall of the Soviet Union. It aimed to make a soft landing on the south pole of the moon, where nobody had succeeded yet.
"They went with a pretty hard mission, right out of the gate," Braun said, adding, "I think an incremental approach actually is a great way to pursue space exploration. One step at a time."
Correction: August 28, 2023 — An earlier version of this article misstated Robert Braun's title. He is head of space exploration at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, not head of a Space Exploration Center there. This story has been updated. It was originally published on August 24, 2023.
Editor's note September 1, 2023: This article has been updated to clarify that India's spacecraft landed in the lunar south pole region, not on the point of the lunar south pole.
- Top 10 must-visit destinations in South Africa
- Indian markets continue record run, Sensex scales 69K peak as power, bank shares advance
- Stock markets continue record run, Sensex scales 69K peak as power, bank shares advance
- Icy pebbles may be carrying water to developing planets across the cosmos!
- With $500 billion in reserves, LIC is the world’s fourth largest insurer