We've had two important space milestones these past few days. Though neither represent a breakthrough in the what, both are breakthroughs for the who, and the how.
MOM being placed in vacuum test chamber.
Both are significant for various reasons.
India now has become only the fourth nation to send a spacecraft to Mars, and the first developing nation to even try. The craft was launched from Earth a month ago, when it was widely reported, but only left Earth orbit on November 30. The reason it spent nearly a month orbiting Earth was because ISRO, the Indian space agency, designed the mission on a shoestring budget of less than US $70 million, including launcher, spacecraft, and deep space communications infrastructure. A direct launch into a Mars trajectory would have required more fuel, and hence a more massive and expensive launcher. Instead, MOM was gradually raised to higher orbits through a series of burns.
The mission was thus cheaper but more complicated, with each burn being a possible point of failure. This is why only after the final burn can we consider it a great success, especially for a first try with so many new elements and procedures. Now, MOM will reach Mars for certain and barring an unlikely failure, will take images of far higher quality than the original US Mariner fly-by missions. If it manages just one more burn it will also settle into orbit around Mars, where the plan is for it to continue sending images for at least six months, which would be a real triumph of so-called frugal engineering.
The achievement is not merely technological. It is also political. Third world space programs are usually highly constrained by a need to show direct economic or military return. This is why most space advocates in these countries are quick to point out Earth-bound applications such as weather monitoring, disaster monitoring, telecommunications, and so forth. In this world, planetary exploration is for rich nations, not politically correct where hunger still exists.
Yet ISRO dared to conceive and request funds for this mission, with the smallest possible budget. As expected, the critics popped up both inside India and beyond it, stating that a country where people are starving could not "afford" such a thing, though India, like most countries, wastes a great deal of money in other projects with far less reason, such as a gigantic statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, which will cost US $340 million and require 5,000 metric tons of iron.
SpaceX has had a great run lately, having reached the International Space Station in 2012 and again in 2013, docking a Dragon capsule and successfully retrieving it from orbit every time. But every SpaceX mission so far has been to low Earth orbit. For a company founded on the intent to make manned Mars exploration a reality, capability to go further than LEO is an important step. The SES 8 mission was that step. Like India's MOM, this required restarting a rocket up in space, always a moment of doubt. In fact, their first test of such a restart had failed, in the previous Falcon 9 1.1 launch. In that case the failure had no consequence, as all the satellites on the rocket had been delivered to their orbits. The test was meant to flesh out any possible problems in the SES mission, where a failure would have result in the loss of the satellite.
The thing about the Falcon 9 version 1.1 is that it really is a Falcon 9 version 2.0. With one launch done, SpaceX's exceptionally well named COO, Gwynne Shotwell, admitted that Falcon 9 1.1 was anything but a 1.1, and was named that way so they wouldn't scare off clients. The 1.1 version is taller, has about 40% more thrust, different engines on a different engine layout, and a number of other changes that make it a lot more than a minimal incremental improvement as suggested by the name. That such a rocket has now been launched twice, almost directly from the drawing board, is another triumph of frugal engineering, though of a different style. The Falcon 9 is cheaper by far than any other rocket in its class and it is the only rocket in the entire US fleet designed entirely in this century, while other commercial launchers have heritage going back to the 1950's and 1960's.
Failure of either one of these missions would have had important consequences. SpaceX is still young and space industry incumbents and their Washington enablers have every reason to try to paint any misstep as proof that the company is not reliable, while conservatives especially would have taken the opportunity to slam Elon Musk for taking US Government money in the form of NASA contracts. In India, if ISRO was criticized for spending money on a successful mission, one can only imagine what would have happened had the launch failed.
To anybody who cares about space exploration, these have been very good days.