Low-cost Mars Probe Hack: Jugaad To Be Kidding Me

The jugaad. Very simple, very cheap, but works. Image from Wikipedia.

Americans pride themselves on entrepreneurship, independence, ingenuity, and can-do traits.  And there’s historical and current evidence of those traits to support that pride.  The Indians, however, seem to be quickly adopting these “American” traits, but at less expense.  Or maybe the traits have always been present in India, but something was suppressing them for a long time.  That’s a discussion for another blog.  This post brings to light an aspect of Indian can-do on the cheap called jugaad.

Jugaad is defined, at least according to that Book of Knowledge, Wikipedia, as an “innovative fix or simple work-around.”  Not only that, but the fix has been accomplished at the expense of some rule-bending and using something in a way it wasn’t originally intended for.  Yep, that almost sounds like a hacker mentality.  It’s not just an engineering philosophy, however:  the “truck” in the picture above is also a jugaad.  Terrible brakes, smokey diesel engine, and slow, it still gets done the job of transporting people and their things around India.  It’s what’s helping people in India live.

The jugaad philosophy has been officially adopted by engineers in at least one area:  space exploration.  Last November, the Indians successfully launched a Mars probe, the Mangalyaan.  It’s still on its way and expected to orbit Mars this September.  If this probe succeeds, it will mean India will have accomplished a feat that even China (one of the more active nations in space) has been unable to do.  But here’s the thing about India’s Mars  mission–it cost them very little to do.

Total costs for the mission are about $74-75 million.  That’s right–it cost them less to build and run the entire mission than it does for the US to launch a DoD rocket.  Now I’m sure there are some differences in cost of living and quality of life–but India’s scientists and engineers are probably very well paid.  There’s likely some favoritism going on in the contract selection process, too.

So why does it cost so much less to run a space mission in the solar system from India?  The Indians attribute some cost savings to their work ethic, noting some of their engineers put in 18-20 hour days and compare that to the typical European 35 hour work week.  Well, maybe, but that’s a very quick way to burning out people, particularly the ones needed in a space program–the “passionate ones.”

What else in this jugaad philosophy might explain the lower costs?  The Indians say they are using existing technologies to help decrease costs–but then so is ULA, and just launching one of their rockets has increased to $450 million.

It might be beneficial for US companies to make a run over to India and see what’s happening.  They might learn something.  They might be horrified that certain processes don’t exist or have been severely shortened.  But whatever it is, the US cannot afford to keep spending millions on space in Defense and Civilian programs just to get satellites in orbit (yes, yes–I know the US spends relatively little on space).  SpaceX and ULA are beating their chests right now, talking over each other about ingenuity and innovation.  One company is trying to stay on the government gravy train, and one is trying to get some of the gravy.  If companies are depending on, and running to, government for their profits, something is broken.

Maybe it’s time to adopt a hacker philosophy for space again.  We did that once, but the Indians remind us we could go jugaad again.  If we don’t, someone may eat our lunch.  Chicken tikka masala, anyone?

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