India is celebrating a major milestone today, after becoming the first country to reach the orbit of Mars on its very first attempt. After launching in November 2013, an Indian spacecraft called Mangalyaan finally reached the red planet’s orbit early Wednesday morning, marking what Prime Minister Narendra Modi described as a “near impossible” feat. The successful mission makes India the first Asian country to reach Mars’ orbit, beating neighboring rival China, whose 2012 attempt ended in failure. The country’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was also financed for just $74 million — less than it cost to make the movie Gravity, as Modi and others have pointed out.
“The odds were stacked against us,” Modi said at a press conference today. “When you are trying to do something that has not been attempted before, it is a leap into the unknown. And space is indeed the biggest unknown out there.”
Mangalyaan, which means “Mars craft” in Hindi, is expected to last about six months before it runs out of fuel. It won’t land on Mars, but will use five scientific instruments to gather data about the planet’s surface and atmosphere. The 3,000-pound spacecraft isn’t as technologically complex as those launched by the US and Russia, but reaching orbit is no small feat. As Modi said during today’s press conference, only 21 of the 51 previous attempts to reach Mars have been successful.
India’s space program is still small relative to other major players, and operated for years under global isolation following sanctions for a nuclear missile test in the 1970s. But Modi has made clear his intent to expand India’s program under his tenure, saying the country could become a leading supplier of low-cost technology. This week’s milestone also comes at an opportune time for the prime minister, who is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly later this week in New York, as well as a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden.