Bangalore: India is set to fly its first mission to Mars on November 5. Even as scientists get set for the nine-month long wait in knowing whether the spacecraft is functioning fine, they also know that it's a matter of time before they start planning for the next mission.
"We have made a modest beginning with Chandrayaan. This is basically we feel a logistic extension, going to Mars. Technologically, we are trying to advance enough to go to Mars so that the scientific community in India will be able to do its research in the planetary science also. So this is ISRO's effort to give our scientists an opportunity to have planetary science in our own way," says ISRO's Programme Director Mylswamy Annadurai.
Dr Annadurai, the man who led the Chandrayaan project earlier, says he has a personal fascination for Mars. He and his wife are both 'Mangliks' - so Mars, or planet Mangal - is what united him with his wife (There is a widely-held superstition that some people's horoscopes are ruled by the planet Mangal or Mars, which isn't a good omen for all marriages. Traditionally, Mangliks are married to other Mangliks). But exploring Mars is important to also dispel such superstitions with better science, Dr Annadurai believes.
This cannot be achieved with just one mission.
ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan says, "This is just a beginning. Now, 2016, 2018 or 2020 - are all opportunities. They all have launch windows for Mars. Now, based on the experience we get from this mission, we have to seriously think what we are going to do. What kind of scientific mission we plan, who are going to be our partners, how we are going to do it. So this is something we need to think over the next two years."
Scientists, by and large, agree that with fast depleting resources and fuels on earth, there's a need to find other places to live on and Mars is the most likely place which makes the romance with Mars more real.
"Maybe it will take 500 years to make Mars liveable. And then of course, people will say you take eight months to go there but people have forgotten that when the first convicts were sent to Australia, they took eight months to go to Australia and you don't mind taking eight months to go to Australia, but why would you mind the same in going to Mars? Of course, you have open seas there, but here you have open space. The question is, how soon can it happen. This all depends on the amount of technology built-up and bringing down the cost," says Dr UR Rao, former ISRO chairman and currently head of the governing council of ISRO's Physical Research Lab.
Yet, with all of Isro's past glory, there is a feeling that we are lagging behind on making manned missions possible, in building the technology to sending up an astronaut, to keep an astronaut safe in space, even as China, that once lagged behind, is working on setting up a manned space station.
A manned mission was originally slated for 2015, but there have been hitches. It is only possible with a geostationary satellite launch vehicle (a GSLV rocket) - and ISRO has been unable to build a reliable GSLV.
Former ISRO chairman Dr Madhavan Nair points out that our neighbours have already done five manned missions. "Ten astronauts have gone and come back, now they are building a space station to be operational by 2020. By then, the US space station will be dead and this will be the only space station available to the global community. India would have positioned itself very nicely if we had launched a manned mission by then and perhaps also an initiative to have a space station or another moon mission. We could have been on par with leading global players. Unfortunately, we have lost precious time. It may take another five to ten years before we can catch up in this area now," Dr Nair says.
Then again, what is science if there is no yearning for more? And ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission or MOM will probably lead on to more exploratory missions in the coming years.