"A one-km auto rickshaw ride in Ahmedabad takes Rs. 10 and India reached Mars at Rs. 7 per km, which is really amazing," said Prime Minister Narendra Modi, emphasizing the achievement in a speech in New York in September 2014.
He was speaking about the inter-planetary plan of the Indian Space Research Organization that has disrupted space technologies.
Elon Musk, a dangerously daring dreamer, at that time had a blueprint of a Martian journey on the drawing board of his SpaceX office in California. He not only wants to just send man to Mars, he wants to colonize it. He has planned on taking one million willing people from our blue planet Earth to the red planet by 2022, a journey of 650 million kilometers. To achieve this objective, he has to make the journey affordable and safe.
"Everything about Mangalyaan (ISRO's space craft to Mars) is indigenous. We reached Mars at a smaller budget than a Hollywood movie," Modi said, referring to the movie “Gravity.”
"India is the only country to reach Mars on its first attempt. If this is not talent, then what is?" he added.
Indeed, India's Mars spacecraft catapulted the country into an elite club of three nations, that too at just $74 million, about a tenth of NASA's $670 million Mars mission "Maven" that entered the Martian orbit just two days before Modi's statement.
Surely, Musk was listening to Modi. It must have been a shocker for him because his project to colonize Mars had, and still has, the same objectives as ISRO's – to reduce space transportation and pay-load carrying costs.
Over the next three years SpaceX developed a family of Falcon-series launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft, both of which deliver payloads into the Earth's orbit at low costs mainly because Musk is able to bring back the launch vehicle for reuse.
During the same three years, ISRO became one of the world's top space-runners. It is now a technology giant that is championing and taming space launches. It is no longer just a government-funded agency but a commercial venture that can launch other countries' satellites through its massive launch vehicles – the GSLVs and the PSLVs. These are capable of carrying heavy payloads of satellites into space.
The ambitions, aspirations and potential of ISRO and SpaceX have started to demonstrate amazingly clear similarities.
When SpaceX was busy announcing the contract with two private individuals to send them in a Dragon spacecraft around the Moon, ISRO had already fired its PSLV and launched 104 satellites into space from a single vehicle. While moon tourism is SpaceX's business proposition, taking other countries' satellites into space is ISRO's.
Of the 104 satellites launched at one go, a whopping 96 belonged to the U.S., which paid India for the launch. The satellites, released in rapid-fire fashion every few seconds from a single rocket as it traveled at 30,000 km an hour, are testing the limits of technology.
On Jan. 12 ISRO soared again. This time it launched 31 satellites during a single mission that included three India satellites and 28 from other countries. When the last of the satellite was ejected, it was the 100th satellite of ISRO.
A month later on Feb. 6, Musk recaptured the headlines as the Falcon Heavy 9 vehicle, the most powerful vehicle developed after the one that took man to the moon, carried a payload of his Tesla Roadster with dummy driver into space and toward the Asteroid belt.
It was sort of a gimmick and fun, as per Musk. However, more importantly, the mission was able to bring back to the earth two of the three launch vehicles and they were recovered. The same did not happen with the third vehicle.
ISRO has also announced that it is planning a flight with a "dummy crew module," which is part of a program to develop critical technologies that it seeks to develop as part of its "human space-flight program."
Now is the time for Modi and Musk to collaborate as equal partners, particularly under Modi's pet project of "Make in India." Both need to recognize this as there is not only an excellent convergence of the attributes and traits between SpaceX and ISRO, but also between Musk and Modi.
All of Musk's projects – electric cars that have captured the imagination of almost all governments, lithium batteries that can break long-standing barriers for solar energy, Tesla Solar Roof Tiles that can turn every home into a power plant, car elevators and underground tunnels that will drastically reduce use of fossil fuels, the Hyperloop for sustainable transport – are path-breaking innovations that can make dependence on fossil fuels history.
Modi has a unique opportunity to de-politicize climate change and space exploration, and take global leadership by partnering with Musk. It would in turn help India’s aspirations of eradicating poverty and creating gainful employment.