The Mars mission should not have been a priority at this stage for India which, instead, ought to have devoted time and energy on getting its rocket operational again and give momentum to the human space flight programme, former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair said.
"My personal opinion is: this (Mars mission) is not a big priority project for us. We should have concentrated more on qualifying the cryogenic engine (for GSLV-Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) and make our manned mission initiative move forward," Nair told PTI here.
The Union Cabinet last night gave go-ahead to the Mars mission, clearing the proposal of Department of Space to put a satellite in an orbit around Mars to study the Red Planet.
Nair, who has accomplished 25 successful missions during his tenure of six years as Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Secretary in the Department of Space, argued that for India, the manned mission (human space flight programme) is the "immediate priority".
"That's where the big gap is. The United States space shuttle has failed and they don't have a launch vehicle. Only Russians have an operating system. China went to the extent of creating a mini (space) station," he said.
"So, in that race India is lagging behind and unless we give a major thrust to Indian manned mission, I think we will be left behind." Nair said India's proposed Mars mission is "only a very small payload with not very big scientific objective".
"We cannot say we can make an impact even nationally or internationally in that (Rs 450 crore Mars mission).
Terming the Mars mission as a "peripheral thing", he said ISRO should, instead, spend its time and energy on qualifying the indigenous cryogenic engine and stage for GSLV (rocket) as also for GSLV-Mk III, which is being developed to carry four-tonne class of satellites.
Nair expressed the view that Mars mission is not a "big challenge". India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV rocket) has proven a number of times it can put satellites into highly elliptical orbit and "if you (Mars satellite) are in the right direction, it will go around Mars".
"It's not even as complex as Chandrayaan-1 mission. By increasing velocity, you will reach Mars. There is not much sophistication involved (in Mars mission) whereas moon mission (Chandrayaan-1) was complex."
Nair also noted that announcement by China that it would land an exploratory craft on the moon next year, and pointed out that India's own similar programme (Chandrayaan-2) has been put on a "low key" compared to the Mars mission, which ISRO plans to undertake in November next year with a 25 kg scientific payload.
"It shows that the priorities are not in the right direction," he said.
In an orbit of 500 x 80,000 km around Mars, the Indian orbiter can get only "very sketchy picture" of the Red Planet. "With highly elliptical orbit, it's not good for imaging".
This orbit might be good for "atmospheric sounding" but NASA has published enough data on Martian atmosphere and "I don't think we can add much value", he said.
But he acknowledged that the Indian orbiter will have a payload to detect the presence of methane. "If that's a success, then that could be a unique point.
GSLV flight with indigenous cryogenic engine and stage conducted by ISRO in April 2010 and the one with Russian engine and stage in December that year had failed. SRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan had said last month the space agency had done a lot of studies to find out the reason for the failure and taken corrective actions, and the cryogenic engine and flight stage should be ready by November.
The space agency needs to conduct two more ground tests thereafter before carrying out the flight, which is expected by the year-end or January next year.
When the Chandrayaan-I mission was launched in 2008, ISRO said Chandrayaan-2 venture would happen four years later (2012). The ISRO now says Chandrayaan-II mission is slated for 2014, after successfully conducting two GSLV flights.
On human space flight programme, ISRO conducted initial studies for four years from 2002 to examine the technological challenges.
In 2006, about 80 senior scientists from across the country who attended a meeting convened by ISRO, were highly appreciative of the study conducted by the space agency and unanimous in suggesting that the time is appropriate for India to undertake such a mission.
By the year 2008, ISRO officials had indicated that they are eyeing the 2015-2016 time-frame for the mission but the back-to-back failure of GSLV has put the clock back by at least a couple of years. Manned mission should have been a priority, not Mars: Nair