I spend a lot of time on my Twitter feed when SpaceX has a launch, mostly to answer questions from inquiring minds. My Facebook feed is similar in that it's full of great articles from sources like New Scientist, Phys.Org, JPL, and the like... and I often peruse them for the same reason. Often times the article lays out a fairly complicated ideal and people who aren't intellectually invested are curious and ask questions. If I can answer it, I answer it. There are plenty of people who have ignorant things to say and, for the most part, I ignore them if it's conspiracy theories about space or the moon landing or something but occasionally I can't help it. Usually when I can't help it, its because its either racially motivated or is a giant piss all over someone's bonfire.
So yesterday India test launched a reusable shuttle. It's very small and the current configuration weighs only 12 metric tons. For comparison, an empty US space shuttle like Discovery weighed around 80 metric tons. The scientific community is largely applauding them for doing it on a now-typical shoestring budget. You may recall India sent the MOM orbiter to Mars rather famously on a budget significantly less than the film Gravity.
Now this brings an armada of thoughts to the layman - on India's ability to cheaply do what NASA does expensively - on whether they should spend money on space when they have so many poor people - and whether they should be wasting money on shuttles when they are still receiving foreign aid. All of these are valid complaints - though they become significantly less valid when you take into consideration a number of salient factors. I will illustrate them hopefully in a clear manner.
The first thing we absolutely have to do is acknowledge that there is a massive poverty problem in India. Mumbai repeatedly shows up on the "most homeless places in the world" lists and its not entirely unfounded. Using any sort of percentage to establish a "poverty rate" proves problematic as it's very difficult to actually define poverty in a place where so many people have some access to food or water but not money. The Indian government had a different definition of poverty all the way up until 2005, where the current system defines poverty as being able to obtain "minimum expenditure per capita to survive." These rates differ based on location (what Americans might call "cost of living"). With that settled, the poverty rate in India tends to hover between 20 and 25%. Even so, that number is hotly disputed and while India has been the largest contributor to the world's reduction of impoverished peoples, their definition of what that is is still contested by the UN.
Most of the above paragraph attempts to navigate the minefield of disinformation and openly-interpreted data but it's hard not to argue that there are a lot of poor people in India. It's a good thing then that their government does not deny that it's a problem.
So how does one fix this? I'll draw upon an analogy to help. Imagine you adopted an at-risk youth but you don't have room in your house for this youth. Just stick with me. Imagine that this youth needs a place to sleep, food, access to clean water, and, critically, the ability to move out on their own. Now also imagine you only have enough money to provide one of these things and need government aid to provide the rest. What do you provide?
If you continually use aid money to only provide food, water, and a place to sleep you are not creating a system that gets this kid out on his own. This sort of system requires the government to continue to provide money for all of his needs until he can make it on his own. Let's take stalk of the resources you DO have. You have a yard and the government can provide money for food and water. Living conditions would suck for awhile, but you could use the yard to plant a garden and provide your own food. What's better, you can plant more food than you need and sell the rest. Congratulations, you just learned how to put your resources to use while also helping someone out.
We're going to weave this story back in a few times but the lesson here is critical. If the government can give you money, you need to utilize it to help and if it means sacrificing shelter for a short time until you can raise the funds from your lawn to pay for shelter yourself, it was a good investment. Otherwise, the government continues to provide you with food, shelter, and water. Eventually, you'll only need the water and most of us agree that's a burden the government should help shoulder. If you didn't have a yard, you'd have to get pretty creative with your resources.
I'm going to reach back in time to the Industrial Revolution. Did you know it was likely the primary driver of the FRENCH Revolution also? French textile manufacturers simply could not compete with the better, cheaper goods that were flooding in from Britain and soon businesses were closing everywhere. France had a number of terrible economic and social policies coupled along with this, but when you consider the only other business that generated anything for the crown as grain and Europe hit an ill-timed ice age and you have the underpinnings of economic collapse.
With the inability to sell to France, where would Britain go next? Why India of course. Soon British textiles were putting Indian manufacturers out of business and without a major source of revenue to replace it, India's economy suffered. Aid that continues to come from Britain is in no small part due to this dependence on cheap, British goods that ruined India's economy for years to come.
Okay, where am I going with this? I've yet to even talk about space! Bear with me! This is important because this entire thing explains why a space program matters.
Reliance on technology is an old game. We in the US are living it in subtly different form. You have to upgrade your phone or TV or computer because the old stuff doesn't work with it. They can charge whatever they want and go to whatever lengths they can to lower the manufacturing cost to hit that perfect ratio of affordable but marginally exploitative. Developing countries are shoved into the same boat but at a much more tenuous position. They need the tech to compete with their neighbors, the guns to protect their borders, and the money to pay back debts (sidebar: The international debt system is fascinating and I encourage you to read up on it). Crafting a society that removes this reliance is tricky and dangerous.
India has proven to be a very shrewd operator in this capacity and has built an extensive infrastructure of technical universities (IIT) that ranks among the top in the world in producing venture capitalists. This expense seemed superfluous but it was laying down a foundation of training their citizenry to help improve technology from within - and lower reliance on foreign technology. The results began as mildly disastrous with some reports indicating that some 70% of engineering grades were emigrating to developed nations. That number has since dropped to nearly 25% and one of the major reasons - India has technical industry. Americans often joke about being helped by an Indian call center when their cable goes out but there's a reason - there are thousands of technically trained people in the country.
Going back to our at-risk youth analogy, the Indian government doesn't really have a yard to plant much. Their predominant export is oil, but one of their most valuable local resources is their technically trained public. Your at-risk youth is a smart cookie and you have friends that need computers fixed. He can fix them and learn to fix more advanced ones with the money he makes - and he can build a room on the house and he can pay you rent. With that revenue guess what you can do? Take in another at-risk youth.
India is merely playing the hand it is dealt and developing technical industries to keep their tax-paying engineers in the country. Technologically-inclined services in India make up over 40% of their GDP - which means further investment in technology is a smart play. Enter the space program.
Okay, so you thought I was going to talk about space, but I need to take one last detour to bring it all back again. There's still an elephant in the room and that's the aid money India receives. Remember how you needed the government to provide you with food and water to grow your garden? Well people have a problem with the government providing you computer parts to fix peoples' computers - even if in the end it's meant to go to the same thing - getting you self-sufficient and out of poverty.
But let's look at what that aid is actually doing. We're going to talk a little economics so take a swig of caffeine and concentrate! It will help you sound way smarter when you're yelling at a guy in a bar about why the US needs to continue to send money to Israel so they can build more tanks.
One of the best ways to slow inflation is to spread your money abroad. The US economy took a real hit during the financial crisis of 2008 and the effects are still reeling us. But they would have been significantly worse if the US dollar still wasn't the predominant currency in international trade. The value of the dollar stays up because we send it out. And subsequently smaller countries' currency stays up because they take that money and loan their own out to smaller countries and on down the line.
So... people of Britain.. listen up.
The euro outpaces the British pound in international currency. If you were to stop loaning money to a major trade partner like India it would drastically reduce the power of the pound when you go on vacation to France, Spain, etc. That effect only gets worse at home and you lose money. If you piece everything together you quickly learn that foreign aid (which is not necessarily aid so much as a very low-interest loan) is far more important to the one doing the loaning than it is to the one receiving the money. Well arguably, the receivers of that money are going to turn around and do the exact same thing to their poorer neighbors, but you can see how this creates a symbiosis.
So how on earth does all of this fit together? India takes aid money from Britain and subsequently loans its own money out in the form of foreign aid to neighboring countries - increasing the value of their currency in their corner of the world. India has actually reached a tipping point where the British aid (having done its job) is no longer necessary and will no longer be receiving it. This is devastating news... to Britain (and they don't know it). Up until recently, they have used this aid money to stabilize their economy and continue to grow industry in sectors that they excel in... aerospace.
So here we are - the shuttle program is in many ways India's announcement to the world that it is a technologically-advanced country capable of sustaining its own future while using the money it generates from space (ISRO - the Indian Space Research Organization - provides a number of functions that enhance Indian business - from farming to fishing) to help lift it's poor, huddled masses.
If the US waited to go into space until it had solved its poor problem, we'd still be waiting.
Thanks for reading.