The Urgency For An Advanced Indian Space Programme

The Urgency For An Advanced Indian Space Programme

by Chaitanya Giri - Saturday, December 12, 2015 12:45 PM IST
The Urgency For An Advanced Indian Space Programme

Space exploration is not only a scientific endeavor but now has a geoeconomic and geopolitical dimension to it. India cannot confine its infrastructure development goals to roads, railways, housing and lavatories; it would have to include mineshafts and mine-rakes on asteroids, space stations deep in space, and manned colonies on the Moon.

Recently a landmark United States law titled ‘US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015’ was signed by President Barack Obama. The law, among other things, facilitates private entities originating in the US to commercially explore and extract extraterrestrial resources present on asteroids and other celestial bodies, potentially including the moon and planets. Private entities, per US laws and international obligations, will hold rights on extraterrestrial material extracted.

While the law has included a disclaimer that Washington would not exert sovereignty over any celestial body, it has right away rejected the already failed Moon Treaty of which India is a signatory. This is a massive victory for the American space advocacy groups and the maturing private space industry with asteroid and lunar mining, space transportation, and space habitat portfolios.

This new law would also stimulate Russia and China to rapidly follow suit by employing their already operational manned and unmanned space exploration programs. The optimistic side of this development is, humans would finally colonize and extract resources from outer space. The hard fact is it would not entirely be a cooperative enterprise but a segregated one with multispectral – political, economic, and ideological – competition for control of extraterrestrial lands and subsequent domination over extraterrestrial resources.

The Urgency For An Advanced Indian Space Programme

Where is India placed in this entire scenario? Why did India at first sign a miscarried treaty? Are our space policymakers yet unwilling to advance India at par with other nations?

The Moon Treaty was tabled in the United Nations in 1979. This treaty was approximate to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which banned the use of weapons of mass destruction in space, on the moon and other celestial bodies and limited the use of these bodies exclusively for peaceful purposes.

The Moon Treaty went much ahead and stressed the moon and other celestial bodies within the Solar System be explored only by the consent of an international regime and based on the principle of the Common Heritage of Mankind. The Moon Treaty also banned private ownership of extraterrestrial property and empowered the hypothetical international regime to control resource extraction and allocation if carried out.

Consequently, the Outer Space Treaty was ratified by all space-faring nations as its clauses were politically viable, but the Moon Treaty was fervently rejected by nearly all of them. The two critical reasons for rejection are: one an international regime is highly impractical and by concept incompatible to national interests and two these nations always envisioned to move out in space for colonization and resource utilization.

Today the Moon Treaty is a failure; acceded, ratified or signed only by twenty nations. Most of these nations cannot maneuver beyond Earth’s orbit. But two space-farers – France and India – stand weirdly in the list of Moon Treaty signatories. Now that the implications of rejecting the treaty are recognized what actually coerced India to sign it?

India’s space-scientific-strategic policy from the times of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has often shown digression from realism towards idealism. Since most space-scientific-strategic institutions were established during his tenure, they were nurtured in a deeply idealistic value system. It is true that India was economically and technologically deficient in the early 1960s, and space exploration could not have been a priority then. Therefore the father of Indian space program Dr. Vikram Sarabhai in 1962 had to declare in his initiation doctrine “We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight.

This tactical Earth-centric doctrine kept a check on the left in India, which often raised the bogie of lavatories over space program. It also signaled India’s surrender as a non-competitor to both Moscow and Washington. When Wernher Von Braun and Sergei Korolev were using the World War II paraphernalia and Cold War as a tool to advance the American and Russian space programs, Sarabhai initiated his space program under the Soviet umbrella and tactically with a tenor of renunciation.

Sarabhai’s untimely death did not give him a chance to see a transforming India, which could have yielded him the chance to override his own doctrine. India’s space policymakers have not been able to depart from the Sarabhai doctrine, bearing in mind Sarabhai’s gigantic impact on the space program, their own inabilities to estimate global trends, and due to successive Indian government’s idealistic and sovietized leanings.

The Urgency For An Advanced Indian Space Programme

Prime Minister Nehru had an admirable interest in the Soviet Union and likewise in its space program. He had hosted the first Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin when he visited India in October 1961. The primordial advances of the Indian space program especially the establishment of ground control systems, R&D facilities and the launch of India’s first satellite series ‘Aryabhata’ in the mid-1970s, during Indira Gandhi’s prime-ministerial tenure, all happened with the Soviet assistance.

Such has been the comradeship between the two nations that in 1976 the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev during Mrs. Gandhi’s state visit to the Soviet Union, took her to the highly guarded cosmonaut training facility at ‘Star City’. Once she came back to power in 1980, after the fall of the Janata government, Leonid Brezhnev offered her to fly an Indian cosmonaut in space under the Soviet Interkosmos program. This offer was special for India but not an élite one.

Soviet Union wished to strengthen its alliance with all pro-Soviet nations from the Warsaw Pact, COMECON and NAM groups.  They had already flied cosmonauts from Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, German Democratic Republic (GDR), Cuba, Mongolia, Vietnam and France. None of these nations, except France, had a competent indigenous space program then.

Mrs. Gandhi accepted the Soviet Union’s offer formally in 1981, deeming it a great opportunity for Indian scientists, and cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma flew later in 1984. In between, on 18th January 1982 India ratified the Outer Space Treaty, which it had signed in 1967 during the first prime-ministerial term of Mrs. Gandhi. On the same day India signed the Moon Treaty.

Although India did not declare its intention of signing the Moon Treaty, there are certain circumstantial evidences that hint at the motive. Mrs. Gandhi while addressing a conference organized by the United Nations Outer Space Affairs Division applauded the successful demonstration of landing man on the moon and exploration of Mars, Venus and outer planets. She further mentioned the glaring differences between the haves and have-nots and urged the then scientists and world leaders not to extend their differences in space.

Overall such statements are understood either as rhetoric, typical to most leaders speaking on global platforms, or as a deep belief in the common heritage of mankind principle. She was most probably serious about the latter. It could either be that by signing the Moon Treaty she was trying to gain a moral high ground by demonstrating India’s commitment to common heritage of mankind; or she possibly was presuming the space-faring nations including her Interkosmos host and all-weather ally – the Soviet Union – would explore and share the extracted extra-terrestrial resources with all nations. The rejection of the Moon Treaty confirms no nation, even socialist, is willing to share these strategic resources freely.

Also it is difficult to know, whether prior to signing the Moon Treaty there was any intelligence analysis done by the Indian agencies. The Indian intelligence network could have detected the huge opposition the Moon Treaty was facing in the United States and the overall disinterest shown by most space-faring nations including the Soviet Union and China. Signing the Moon Treaty under the allure of idealism and the now-collapsed Soviet Union has done no good to India. It has only highly restricted India’s space program.

One cannot say that the Indian leadership never thought of space exploration seriously. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee began talking about carrying out space exploration with the purpose of extra-terrestrial resource utilization. The entire premise of the Chandrayaan-1 mission, which he announced in 2003, was based on developing capabilities to extract minerals from the moon.

The Urgency For An Advanced Indian Space Programme

Talks on extracting Helium-3, a potent fuel for nuclear fusion, from the moon were coming from the then space administrators. The Indian interest in Helium-3 coincided with that of China, which prompted it to launch the Chang’e 1 lunar mission in 2007. However India’s interest was short-lived only until the launch of Chandrayaan-1 in 2008. Today when New Delhi is stuck with only one successful lunar mission to the moon, Beijing has attempted four successful lunar missions, the fifth is scheduled for 2017, each demonstrating increasing capabilities.

In the same period Beijing has successfully demonstrated manned spaceflight and space station building capabilities. Beijing is planning to launch its indigenous full-fledged space station by the year 2020, and for which Pakistan has shown interest. Beijing could play the same geopolitical card as the Soviets did in the 1970s and 1980s and this time to counter India by taking Pakistani taikonauts in space.

There might be a counter-agreement that India has made an impact with its recently successful technology demonstrator Mars Orbiter Mission. True, the mission has been impactful, but it has been dependent on American deep space communication network and with a limited payload that has not yet yielded high-end science.

New Delhi’s limitation, despite its overwhelming encouragement to Mars Orbiter, is well known. And in all this, the real race is not for Mars. If it were so, Beijing would have fastened its counter move. The real race exists in the near-Earth space and it is here India is stagnating.

The renunciation in the Sarabhai doctrine, which was actually practical only for a few years, erroneously continues to this day as prophetic words that cannot be changed. Recently the ISRO chairman deprioritized the Indian manned spaceflight program and indicated refocusing on basic Earth-based applications.

Although advancing Earth-based competencies is necessary, the rampant belittling of a strategic endeavor like manned space exploration is harmful to India’s interests. Both Mr. Vajpayee’s Chandrayaan-1 and to a certain extent Mrs. Gandhi’s Interkosmos are indicators of rare rational investment on part of our prime ministers. However it is equally clear that to this day the Indian leadership and space administrators mistakenly views space exploration as unnecessary, fanciful and the-last-thing-to-do.

The success of US in space is widely due to its non-centralized and competitive habitat. Its universities, research institutions, governmental departments as well as the private sector together generate great technological dividends for their nation.

Russia and erstwhile Soviet Union – India’s former sociopolitical idols – unlike India also possess a quasi-decentralized system. The great advances it made in space was due to stiff competition amongst the various design bureaus. The rapid advances of China in space are also credited to their own versions of design bureaus often deemed as academies, corporations, and expert groups.

India’s space program, to its own hazard, has remained more centralized and devoid of any constructive inter-agency competition as compared to ‘centralized’ China and Russia. Such a program contributes much less to a nation’s technological infrastructure as compared to de-centralized one.

As the Nobel Prize winner economist Milton Friedman held in his critique for India’s over-centralized framework and which is even relevant today “India lacks none of the basic requisites for economic growth except a proper economic policy” He further added “The current danger is that India will stretch into centuries what took other countries only decades.

His prophetic statements could be extrapolated even to India’s improperly inward-looking space policy. If New Delhi is to extract the best from its space program it ought to be ambitious yet real world and less-protectionist yet not Laissez-faire.

An artist’s impression of ISRO’s Mangalyaan (Wikimedia Commons/Nesnad)
An artist’s impression of ISRO’s Mangalyaan (Wikimedia Commons/Nesnad)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi must comprehend space exploration as a crucial apparatus for India’s futuristic interests. Space-faring nations have always carried out exploration with raison d’etat in pursuit; Indian space program sadly is ailing with non-pragmatic idealism against its own interest.

Space exploration is not only a scientific endeavor but now has a geoeconomic and geopolitical dimension to it. In the 21st century, India cannot confine its infrastructure development goals to roads, railways, housing and lavatories; it would have to include mineshafts and mine-rakes on asteroids, space stations deep in space, and manned colonies on the Moon.

These state-of-the-art infrastructures are no more fantasies and amusements but are serious machineries of the evolving global economy. Washington’s laudable move is a signal that even in outer space speed, far-sightedness and realism would always triumph lethargy, myopia and idealism. Venturing in space is a common dream for the entire mankind, however it would be a segregated and competitive enterprise. The youthful one sixth of humanity – India – ought to partake in this spirited aspiration for the advancement of its own civilization.

Dr. Chaitanya Giri writes on science, diplomacy, strategy, and techno-economics. Views are personal.
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