India's Mars Orbiter Mission: Triumph of Frugal Engineering

India's Mars Orbiter Mission: Triumph of Frugal Engineering
Case Code: BSTR473
Case Length: 11 Pages
Period: 2011 - 2014
Pub Date: 2015
Teaching Note: Available
Price: Rs.300
Organization: ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization)
Industry: Space Technology
Countries: India
Themes: Innovation, Frugal Innovation
India's Mars Orbiter Mission: Triumph of Frugal Engineering
Abstract Case Intro 1 Case Intro 2 Excerpts


With the success of its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan, India became the first country to succeed in its maiden attempt to reach Mars. However, what captured the attention of the international media was the shoestring budget in which the mission was accomplished. At US$74 million, the budget was less than what was spent on the Hollywood movie 'Gravity', released the same year. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) completed the mission within 2 years with the help of the indigenously developed Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

ISRO was established in the year 1969 under the chairmanship of Dr Vikram Sarabhai (Sarabhai), regarded as the father of the Indian space research initiative. India's space program, when it was began, came under a lot of criticism. There were many who felt that as a developing nation, India's priority should be to deal with issues like poverty. However, Sarabhai convinced the government that there was no ambiguity in ISRO's purpose and it was not competing with economically developed nations in the exploration of the moon or any other planet. The priority of the organization was to apply advanced technologies to solve the real problems of man and society. Initially, ISRO built satellites which largely benefitted the communication and weather forecast systems within the country.

The first indigenously built satellite by ISRO was Aryabhatta which was launched by the erstwhile Soviet Union in the year 1975. ISRO's next big achievement was the INSAT (Indian National Satellite System), a series of multipurpose satellites launched to meet the needs of the nation with respect to telecommunications, broadcasting, meteorology, and rescue operations. ISRO developed remote sensing satellites in the year 1988. These were the first operational satellites built by Indian scientists. ISRO later focused on developing launch vehicles as it had to pay other organizations a lot of money for the launches. ISRO scientists successfully built its launch vehicle, the PSLV, and on October 15, 1994, the PSLV placed the IRS P2 satellite in orbit. The only disadvantage with the PSLV was that it could not launch heavy satellites like the INSAT series. To overcome this problem, ISRO started its GSLV program in the year 1990.

The ISRO scientists made their presence felt in the international arena when Chandrayaan-1, India's first mission to the moon, succeeded in gathering data that proved the presence of water on the lunar surface. Chandrayaan-1 was built in less than 5 years and weighed 1380 kg. It had 11 scientific instruments, of which 5 were Indian.

ISRO then focused on Mangalyaan, and from the beginning worked on reducing the costs associated with its development and launch. Mangalyaan was launched from Sriharikota on November 05, 2013, with the aim of mastering advanced technologies and looking for traces of methane in the atmosphere of Mars.

After 10 months, the spacecraft finally reached the Mars orbit and started revolving around the planet. In September 2014, it was inserted into the Mars orbit.

The scientists at ISRO proved that meaningful science was possible at low cost. With the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO could market itself as a low cost destination for sophisticated engineering and the launching of commercial satellites at competitive costs.

The Mars mission was criticized by many analysts including the former ISRO chairman, G Madhavan Nair, who caustically remarked that the Mars Orbiter Mission was a "half cooked mission attempted in undue haste with misplaced objectives". However, the biggest criticism against the mission was that government funds were being channeled into space research in a developing nation without any profitable returns. In contrast, in the West, research was increasingly being funded by private companies. However, the expertise achieved by the ISRO scientists in making satellites helped save the lives of millions during the cyclones Phailin and Hudhud. This was possible only due to accurate predictions about the location, speed, and intensity of the cyclones. The technology developed by ISRO was also being used by the DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) to make missiles, which strengthened the military power of India. According to experts, the technological expertise achieved by the ISRO scientists would help in the development of more complex satellites, which in turn would benefit the country. Some activists also raised questions about the amount of money spent by developing nations on space exploration when there was such widespread poverty and inequality.


The case is structured to achieve the following teaching objectives:

  • Understand frugal innovation
  • Study how frugal innovation is practiced in emerging markets
  • Understand how resource constraints and scarcity can be overcome
  • Examine how to innovate cost-effectively under resource constraints
  • Analyze how such innovations help emerging markets address their problems and also compete with developed countries



Frugal Innovation, Reverse Engineering, Indian Space Research Organization, Mars Orbiter Mission, Reducing costs, Frugal engineering, Developing country, resource scarcity, Frugal innovation for emerging markets, Mangalyaan

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