India has successfully launched its first true space mission (covered everywhere – NYTimes, Guardian) with the launch of the Chandrayaan-1 unmanned spacecraft. The mission, which will take two years, is expected to orbit the moon at 100km, build a high resolution map, explore the moon’s surface through an impact probe, and search for traces of water and rare elements (such as Helium 3).
Not surprisingly, coverage of this event is extensive (take a quick look at Google News search), and the foreign press is picking this up as far as Taiwan, Malaysia, Canada, and Australia. Australia’s newspapers said that the launch indicated India’s rise to great power status. In my opinion, however, the broad coverage India’s technical success receives is a better barometer of how important India has become. Clearly, a lot of countries are watching India.
A Space Race…with Significant Differences
Of course, no mention of India’s space ambitions would be complete without comparisons with China’s. For instance, TIME had the following to say:
Asia’s space race just got a whole lot tighter: India’s successful launch on Wednesday of its first moon mission, the unmanned Chandrayaan-I, marked a dramatic step forward in its race with China to put a man on the moon. China had stolen a march in 2003 by becoming only the third nation to fly a man into space (after the U.S. and the old Soviet Union), but when, ten days from now, Chandrayaan-I drops a probe bearing India’s flag onto the moon, India will become only the fourth country to plant its colors on the lunar landscape — after the Americans, the Russians, and Japan.
Yet, there are critical differences in and benefits to India’s approach.
First, it is substantially cheaper than any existing or forthcoming mission: Chandrayaan-1 cost about USD 79 million, while the upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from NASA is expected to cost USD 500 million. This emphasis on cost efficiency is a legacy of India’s resource constrained innovation environment, and has been a hallmark of most technical projects. It also gives India a long-term competitive advantage over other nations:
Earlier this year India was ranked by analysts at Futron, a hi-tech consultancy, as only a fraction behind China in global space competitiveness rankings, and well ahead of Japan, Israel and Canada. It is also building a low-cost, hi-tech base. China’s Chang’e I cost nearly double India’s Chandrayaan I bill of $86m.
Second, despite being cheaper, the lunar probe is more technologically advanced than the Chinese and Japanese probes. For the first time, this will allow high-resolution mapping of the moon’s atmosphere and surface.
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, India’s mission is not a lonely one. Chandrayaan-1 carries two instruments from NASA and one from the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory in the UK. And India’s next objective – for a larger spacecraft and moon lander – will require collaboration with Russia:
The Indian agency’s next step is to launch a second unmanned lunar mission in 2011, comprising an orbiting spacecraft, a lander and a moon-rover built with Russian help.
Chandrayaan Reflects Politics
Chandrayaan’s rise is a reflection of the geopolitical shift that has taken place in the Western world, towards India. Kissinger once said that “Indians are bastards.” Today, the USA has revoked global non-proliferation rules for India and is paying India to carry its high-tech gagdets into space. This is a sharp rebuke to those that suggested the Indo-US nuclear deal would curtail India’s technological advances, for it illustrates collaboration between India and the world’s current major powers can only benefit us.
Second, it illustrates that India – despite its millions of poor people – has no intention of being left out of the space race, and rightly so. There are many ways to develop a country and address poverty. Investments in innovation, technology, and science are certainly some of the best. Not surprisingly, some prefer that India spend its money to feed the hungry, but they benefit immensely from ISRO’s weather mapping satellites and networks. Dr Kasturirangan, ISRO’s chairperson said it better:
“It is not a question of whether we can afford it. It’s whether we can afford to ignore it…the returns, in terms of the science…the technology, inspiration, stature, prospects for international cooperation… are immense.” For one, it will help India cement its position in the commercial satellite launch sector, and it will give the ISRO valuable experience in building hi-tech spacecraft, improved rocketry and more advanced remote navigation technology — all of which could be put to many uses.
Finally, this mission should give pause to those that question India’s capablities, vis-a-vis China. China may have moved first, but India is not far behind. This mission is cheaper and promises to be more effective. Besides, the words of Bharat Karnad, ironically someone opposed to the nuclear deal and to this mission, are relevant here:
That India is not about to become a “global superpower” in a hurry, is true. But is that reason enough to deny this country the building block capabilities of great power?
In other words, simply because China is ahead of India is no reason not to compete.
There is little doubt that a new “space race” is on. It is also inevitable that this will lead to greater competition in the future. For instance, India and China are both seeking Helium 3 on the moon to source their energy needs. This is just one example of likely competition for limited resources on this “final frontier.” The outcome of this race is far from clear, but India’s approach of avoiding excess and seeking collaboration is better. It bodes well not just for India’s space program, but for the prospects of collaborating to share the spoils.