OK, let's cut to the chase. In less than 2 days, India is going to launch a space mission that aims to put a satellite in Mars orbit less than a year from now. Many ask why a third-world nation is investing $80 million to send a tiny spacecraft 400 million kilometers away? What could this possibly do to alleviate India's grinding poverty?
And those questions become even more pointed when they hear that a former ISRO director has all but called the mission a waste of time because it will hardly be able to perform any valuable scientific experiments.
It is true that ISRO's Mars Orbiter will carry a very tiny scientific payload to the red planet. Continued problems with India's GSLV rocket mean that ISRO has to rely on the less-powerful PSLV to take the orbiter into space. Less power means a smaller satellite.
So why then is ISRO going ahead with the mission if it won't be able to conduct much research when it arrives? There's an old cliche about the journey being the reward. In this case, it holds true.
If successful, Mangalyaan would equal a feat achieved only by the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency. They possess three of the most advanced scientific communities in human history. India could soon join them, and we would do it at a fraction of the cost. These are two hugely important milestones for the Indian scientific community.
The scientific and technological challenges involved in getting a spacecraft to orbit Mars are so great that half of all missions to the Red Planet have failed.
Getting the orbiter into interplanetary space by itself is no mean feat. Communicating with it across 4-7 minute long time delays, while having it execute complex, minute maneuvers to enter and stay in Mars orbit requires planning, computing & commmunications capabilities that very few countries possess. And then comes the science. Any success with the scientific payloads would be a wonderful bonus, but getting these instruments to work is a secondary objective.
To succeed across all these steps, you need the very best rocket scientists, computer programmers, artificial intelligence experts, planetary geophysicists, radar and long-range communications engineers, physicists, chemists, material scientists, metallurgists and dozens of other specialists in many disciplines, working as one. If even one of them is not at the very top of their game, the mission could end in failure.
So yes, Mangalyaan is a long shot, but success would mean that India has acheived a level of cutting-edge scientific and technological capabilities previously present in only three scientific communities. It would become a fantastic case study and calling card for investing in India's high-tech industries and education.
Emily Lakdawalla, a scientist and blogger at the Planetary Society, addresses the question about funding space research while fighting poverty more directly:
"...there's an error in the question. It assumes that there is a fixed quantity of wealth in India, and that stopping investment in high-tech industry would mean more money for the poor. Wealth doesn't work that way; there is not a fixed quantity of it. The technology India is developing for this mission has direct commercial applications, generating economic activity that will increase the nation's overall wealth. And I think that backers of India's space program believe that achieving a successful mission to Mars would increase confidence in India's technological prowess and therefore the flow of investment money. To be seen in the company of the U.S. and China and Europe would have to stimulate such investment."
You can read the rest of her excellent FAQ on Mangalyaan here.