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India launches mission to Mars -

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PETER LLOYD: Shortly India will launch its first expedition to Mars to assess whether or not there is - or ever has been life on the red planet.

Many in India are proud of the nation's space program, but critics of the money being spent on the mission say it would be better used to help people back on Earth.

Stephanie March reports from New Delhi.

VINOD KOTIYA: Where is the moon? Where is the moon? Where is the moon? No.

JEANIE: There is no moon.

VINOD KOTIYA: No, you can’t see the moon in the morning.

(Sound of baby laughing)

STEPHANIE MARCH: In a park opposite his apartment in suburban Delhi, Vinod Kotiya is trying to teach his 15 month-old daughter Jeanie about the universe.

VINOD KOTIYA: Okay where is the Mars? Jeanie where is the Mars?

From my childhood I wanted to be an astronaut, so it is not easy in my country to become an astronaut.

STEPHANIE MARCH: India has been in space since the 1980s, when it became the seventh country to successfully launch a satellite.

Since then it has only managed to produce one astronaut and one cosmonaut, a fact that deeply frustrates space enthusiast Vinod Kotiya.

VINOD KOTIYA: We can't survive on the Earth for a long time, some day we have to go to other planets so why not we start today?

STEPHANIE MARCH: He is one of 200,000 Indians to have applied to be a part of the Mars One project, a not for profit organization based in Europe that plans to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2023.

Successful applicants win a one-way ticket to the red planet.

Vinod Kotiya isn't the only Indian keen to get to Mars. The nation's government and space agency - ISRO - want to get there too, and they are a little more advanced in their planning.

India's first mission to Mars is due to launch later this month.

D Raghunandan is from the Delhi Science Forum.

D RAGHUNANDAN: So this probe is going to look at the martian atmosphere and particularly to look at the methane composition in the atmosphere.

STEPHANIE MARCH: The presence of methane means the possibility of life on Mars.

Many Indian's are proud of the country's space program. It was the first country to confirm the presence of water on the moon during its 2008 lunar voyage.

The Mars mission will cost a little less than $US100 million - cheap by international space program standards, but critics say the money could be better spent.

Praful Bidwai is a social scientist based in New Delhi.

PRAFUL BIDWAI: This is a perversity because you're really spending money on the moon mission and the Mars mission, which is completely disproportionate in quantity to what we spend on absolute basic needs, you know, of the population.

STEPHANIE MARCH: A recent report from India's rural development ministry found that only 18 per cent of the country's rural population have access to clean drinking water, electricity, and toilets.

PRAFUL BIDWAI: I would say build toilets, improve you know the drinking water supply system in the whole country, give people better health care. I would put that $100 million into a universal vaccination program - beef that up.

STEPHANIE MARCH: But supporters of the space program, like D Raghunandan, say it has achieved a great deal for the average Indian citizen.

D RAGHUNANDAN: So India has used its space program for exploration of natural resources, for remote sensing for mapping of mineral resources, of forest area land resources, which has again yielded enormous developmental dividends.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Aspiring astronaut Vinod Kotiya agrees, and says venturing into space may provide solutions for many more of India's future worries.

VINOD KOTIYA: We should now think for colonisation, we should now think for utilising the resources of other planets; the moon, asteroids - like that.

PETER LLOYD: That’s aspiring astronaut Vinod Kotiya ending Stephanie March's report from New Delhi.