Exclusive: Chandrayaan-2 cheaper than 'Avengers Endgame', but how? ISRO scientists explain

New Delhi, Aniruddha Dhar | Updated : 24 July 2019, 01:19 AM
ISRO launched Chandrayaan-2 on-board its powerful rocket GSLV-MkIII-M1 from the spaceport of Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh on Monday. (ISRO)
ISRO launched Chandrayaan-2 on-board its powerful rocket GSLV-MkIII-M1 from the spaceport of Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh on Monday. (ISRO)

On July 22, 2019, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) added another feather to its hat – by successfully launching India's second moon mission Chandrayaan-2 aimed at landing a rover on unchartered Lunar South Pole with the country's most powerful geosynchronous launch vehicle (GSLV-MkIII-M1), which injected the spacecraft into the Earth orbit after lift-off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. 

Billed as the most complex and prestigious mission undertaken by the ISRO since its inception, Chandrayaan-2 will make India the fourth country to soft land a rover on the lunar surface after Russia, the United States and China. It will be subjected to a series of orbit manoeuvres in the coming weeks to take it to the vicinity of moon, with the rover soft landing planned on September 7.

There is another aspect which remained a talking-point in the media – its cost. Unlike other moon missions of the NASA, the Chandrayaan-2 weighing 3.8 tonnes is extremely cost-effective, with a total estimated cost of Rs 978 crore, including Rs 603 crore for the space segment and Rs 375 crore for the launch. The space segment includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover (Pragyan). By comparison, Chandrayaan-2 is cheaper than the $165 million (Rs 1,105 crore) it cost to make the 2014 Hollywood sci-fi film “Interstellar”. It also costs less than half of the budget of Hollywood blockbuster “Avengers Endgame”.

“The total cost of the Chandrayaan-2 mission is about $124 million, which includes a $31 million price tag for the launch and $93 million for the satellite. The cost is less than half of the budget of Hollywood blockbuster ‘Avengers Endgame’, which had an estimated budget of $356 million,” says Sputnik, a Moscow-based international news agency.

And when it comes to the total money spent in the Lok Sabha election 2019, there is, in fact, no match. According to a study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) -- a not-for-profit multi-disciplinary development research think-tank -- a whopping Rs 55,000-60,000 crore was spent in the recently concluded polls. 
 
So, how did ISRO keep moon mission cost cheaper than Hollywood hits? 
 
“The ISRO pursues the indigenisation programme for critical components and materials with industry participation to reduce the dependence on import. The Indian industry is contributing significantly in the designing, manufacturing and testing of components and material as well as sub-systems as per ISRO's requirements,” a scientist working with the ISRO told News Nation on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

He added that cost is a factor kept in mind by the ISRO since inception of a project. “India is a country where we can't think of spending lavishly such as the NASA or the European Space Agency. India can't spend hefty amounts on scientific exploratory missions,” he said.

Reusing the same tried-and-tested workshorse PSLV and GSLV for multiple missions also helps keep launch budget under tight leash.
 
Of the Rs 603 crore (spent on space segment), ISRO chairman Dr K Sivan has earlier said about 60% went to industries and universities that worked on Chandrayaan-2. 

“Nearly 620 organisations (500 universities and 120 companies) have pitched in their tech-might and manpower,” Sivan said. 

In 2018, the ISRO announced the cost of the mission to be Rs 800 crore – Rs 200 crore for the launcher and Rs 600 crore for the satellite. In 2018, Sivan had said this cost was almost half of what it would cost if the same mission had to be launched from a foreign launching site.
 
Another senior scientist working at the Indian space organisation told News Nation that India spends around $1.2 billion a year on its space programme, while in comparison, the NASA had a budget of more than $20 billion till last year.

Significantly, the budget allocation for the Department of Space for the year 2019-20 is estimated to go up by 11 per cent to about Rs 12,473 crore, from the revised estimate of Rs 11,200 crore during 2018-19. 

In India, the cost of hiring talents are far less compared with the West.

“Engineers in India cost much less than those in the US. The approximate annual income of an aeronautical engineer in the United States is just under $105,000, whereas in India, the higher end of the scale for engineers there is less than $20,000,” a scientist told News Nation.

He also said while scientists in foreign organisations are hired before a particular project begins at hefty contracts, the ISRO designates its permanent employees ahead of a project or a mission. This makes the entire mission much cheaper.   

In a giant leap for the country's ambitious low-cost space programme, the ISRO has undertaken the most complex and its prestigious mission ever aiming to land the rover on the moon.

First Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2019 10:32 PM
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