November 5, 2013, a rocket launched toward Mars. It was India’s first interplanetary mission, Mangalyaan, and a terrific gamble. Only 40 percent of missions sent to Mars by major space organizations — NASA, Russia’s, Japan’s, or China’s — had ever been a success. No space organization had entered Mars’s orbit on its first attempt. What’s more, India’s space organization, ISRO, had very little funding: while NASA’s Mars probe, Maven, cost $651 million, the budget for this mission was $74 million. In comparison, the budget for the movie “The Martian” was $108 million. Oh, and ISRO sent off its rocket only 18 months since work on it began.
A few months and several million kilometers later, the orbiter prepared to enter Mars’ gravity. This was a critical moment. If the orbiter entered Mars’ gravity at the wrong angle, off by so much as one degree, it would either crash onto the surface of Mars or fly right past it, lost in the emptiness of space.
What a great story.