India’s successful launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is good news. After a few weeks in the Earth’s orbit, the orbiter will be heading out to the famed red planet. The journey, however, is fraught with danger with only the ESA making it in the first attempt.
A larger question is why India (and before that Japan, China and the ESA) attempted to develop their own technology for the Mars mission. After the US and Russia have already demonstrated viable technologies to reach the orbit and then land on Mars, it is unclear why reinventing such technologies is an economically good decision.
The utility a country derives from developing its own Mars mission may have four parts.
Public Pride (PuP) = Pride from achieving something for humanity
Private Pride (PrP) = Pride from showcasing the country’s accomplishments
Public Data (PuD) = Data and information that will be disseminated publicly
Private Data (PrD) = Data and information that will be held confidential
V = PuP + PrP + PuD + PrD
If the total cost of the mission is C, the the return to the country is (V-C)/C. However, since the true economic value of pride is close to zero, the country’s real return from such missions is low. It can, however, boost this return by acquiring such technologies from countries that have already demonstrated viability.
For example, in India’s case, if it is able to swallow the less valuable pride, then it could buy the technology (from the US or Russia) for just PrD. By doing so, it loses PrP but the selling country will likely subsidize PuP and PuD. In this case, its return from the mission is (PuP+PuD)/PrD. This is likely substantially higher than developing the technology on its own. At the very least, the cost will likely be an order of magnitude less.
More generally, society can maximize return on space investments if follower countries (after a single country has accomplished the goal) simply buys the technology from the leader to execute missions.