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Business News/ News / How India Pulled Off Its Frugal Moon Landing
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How India Pulled Off Its Frugal Moon Landing


Indians are proudly noting that their country has landed on the moon for less than the cost of the average Hollywood space blockbuster

Kolkata, India - Aug. 23, 2023: School students take a closer look at 3D model of Chandrayan 3's lander module (LM) named as 'Lander Vikram' at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum (BITM) in Kolkata, India, on Wednesday, August 23, 2023. (Photo by Samir Jana/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)Premium
Kolkata, India - Aug. 23, 2023: School students take a closer look at 3D model of Chandrayan 3's lander module (LM) named as 'Lander Vikram' at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum (BITM) in Kolkata, India, on Wednesday, August 23, 2023. (Photo by Samir Jana/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

NEW DELHI—Surendra Pal, an engineer who worked at India’s space agency for four decades to build its satellite program, still remembers the early days of the country’s space efforts. A handful of engineers fresh out of college worked out of sheds with corrugated metal roofs on the outskirts of Bengaluru. There wasn’t a lot of equipment. But there were birds.

“Pigeons used to fly over our heads," recalled Pal, who worked on the development of India’s first satellite, the Aryabhata, which was launched into space free of charge by Russia in 1975.

For that first satellite, developed in the 1970s when India’s per capita GDP was about $120, scientists sought government funding of about 30 million rupees, according to Pal, or less than $4 million at the time.

From those days, the Indian Space Research Organisation has turned the country of 1.4 billion into a major space power—for a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars that first-generation space powers such as the U.S. and Russia have spent on their space programs. On Wednesday, when India became the fourth country ever to safely land a spacecraft on the moon, proud Indians were quick to note the achievement, estimated to have cost about $70 million, was far cheaper than making the Hollywood sci-fi epic “Interstellar."

“India does operate with a really small budget in the Indian space program," said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a New Delhi-based space expert and director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation.

India on Wednesday also became the first country to land near the moon’s South Pole, where scientists hope to find water resources to facilitate missions to other parts of the solar system and future efforts for long-term settlements on the moon. Space experts say it is especially challenging lunar terrain to land on due to the long shadows cast by boulders and deep craters.

A rover called Pragyan will spend 14 days looking for water ice and carrying out research about the topography.

India’s successful landing came after Russia’s space agency said Sunday that its spacecraft on a similar mission to the lunar South Pole had crashed into the moon.

India is now the world’s fifth-biggest economy. Its latest budget has earmarked $1.5 billion for its Department of Space, which includes ISRO. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget stands at $25 billion. While China doesn’t publish figures for its space agency’s budget, researchers estimate it at upward of $10 billion.

The space agency in recent years has also begun earning revenues from launching satellites for other countries.

Developing its own technology took time but ultimately allowed India to keep the costs of its in-house technology low, said Rajagopalan. ISRO also manages to achieve ambitious missions on a relatively small budget by keeping its goals contained, she said.

India’s 2014 mission to Mars, for example, kept the size of its payload—the scientific instruments it carried—small, which allowed for the use of a smaller rocket to put its spacecraft into Earth orbit, she said. That mission also cost about $70 million. In contrast, NASA’s mission to Mars that same year, called MAVEN, had much broader goals of carrying out extensive scientific observations and experiments.

“India was doing more of a technology demonstrator," Rajagopalan said. NASA’s mission to Mars, in comparison, was “much larger, much more complex."

In the case of the moon mission, the Chandrayaan-3 lifted off with a smaller rocket than Russia’s Luna-25 and looped around the Earth several times, using Earth’s gravity to slingshot its way toward the moon, a journey that took nearly 40 days but saved fuel and money.

India opened up its space sector to private firms in 2020 and last year saw a space startup launch the country’s first privately built rocket. Eyeing the rise of U.S. space companies like SpaceX, which dominates the commercial satellite launch market, India’s government hopes the move will draw billions of dollars in funding toward private companies to add momentum to the government space program.

Another place where India’s space program saves money is in salaries. ISRO’s workforce of a little over 19,000 people, three-fourths of whom are scientists, is slightly more than NASA’s total permanent employees. The space agency chairman, S. Somanath, and top scientists at the space agency’s headquarters, are paid around $2,700 a month, according to salary data the agency discloses.

India’s missions have become more complex and ambitious over the years. India is aiming for a manned space flight into orbit next year. That is a long way from where it started over half a century ago.

In interviews with India media over the years, former ISRO chief U.R. Rao, who was director of India’s fledgling satellite program in the 1970s, noted that most of the young scientists working with him had little to no idea what a satellite even was.

In those early days, said Pal, the team had limited equipment and no computer of its own, and often relied on wooden models of initial designs.

When a space agency of another country quoted a figure of 20 million rupees to test a system for India’s first communication satellite, launched in 1981, the scientist came up with a workaround.

Aware that there was little in the way of electromagnetic interference nearby, apart from a transmission from a daily national radio broadcast, they placed the satellite in a heavy pressure nitrogen tank to protect it from dust. Then they placed that on a bullock cart—drawn by oxen and commonly used for transport in rural India—figuring the wooden structure would help avoid interference and allow them to conduct their tests.

The cost? One hundred and fifty rupees paid to the man whose cart they used.

Pal, who retired from the space agency about a decade ago after becoming a top official at its satellite program, says he doubts ISRO’s total spending has yet hit $5 billion.

Space experts—and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—said India’s moon landing would be particularly inspiring to emerging economies that also wish to mount space projects with limited resources.

“I am confident that all countries in the world including those from the global south are capable of achieving such feats," said Modi after the Chandrayaan-3 touched down. “We can all aspire for the moon and beyond."

—Shan Li contributed to this article.

Write to Tripti Lahiri at

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