Here's a short essay of mine on India's Mars mission on November 05, published in Asian Wall Street Journal.
India’s space program did not begin with big ambitions. Vikram Sarabhai, one of the original leaders of the Indian space program in the early 1960s, said that India did “not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight.”
Even if we take Mr. Sarabhai at his word, India’s maiden mission to Mars, set for lift off today, shows that things have changed.
For the full essay, click here.
Firstly, it provides an indication of a growing space race between India and China. Fielding its Mars mission before China has reached the Red Planet is clearly a big factor in Delhi’s calculations. China attempted a Mars orbiter mission in 2011, piggybacking it on a Russian Mars spacecraft, but that failed to leave Earth’s orbit.
Setting off to Mars is a demonstration of India’s technological capabilities and an attempt to join the US, Russia and the European Union in successful interplanetary exploration before China.
The mission is not without its critics, including some former officials of Indian Space Research Organisation, India’s space agency, who argue that it is a waste of money, especially in a country where so many live in poverty. It is unlikely that critics will get much of a hearing.
India claims that its missions are much cheaper than similar ones elsewhere, with this attempt costing $73 million, about a tenth as much as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration spends on comparable programs.
The bread or gun argument is real for India, but the country doesn’t live in a benign neighborhood and the security imperative also requires it to focus on those capabilities which can prepare it for the challenge presented by its location.
India’s security compulsions are becoming a more compelling driver for its space program. Countries around the world have so far used space for so-called passive military applications such as communications and reconnaissance but there is a growing trend towards ‘weaponizing’ outer space.
The U.S.’s Prompt Global Strike program, which includes using long-range missiles and hypersonic vehicles that will transit through space, has created the impression that it plans to weaponize space. This could provoke reactions from Russia and China and set off a broader arms race in space.
China’s anti-satellite test in January 2007 served as a wake-up call to India about the challenges that exist in its neighborhood. The test sparked a new debate, both within the Indian security establishment and the larger Indian strategic community about the country’s traditional policy against the militarization of space and put pressure to develop its own anti-satellite system. While India is yet to demonstrate such capability, the scientific establishment has made it amply clear that they have the technological blocks ready should there be a political decision to do so.
One indicator of Indian concerns about the nature of the space race, is the likely establishment of an Indian aerospace command. Many of the key global powers such as the U.S. and Russia have such commands, India does not. While the Indian government has been debating the issue for close to a decade, there are indications that it is moving forward with the proposal. In 2008, India established an Integrated Space Cell under the aegis of the Integrated Defence Staff. The cell has functioned well in coordinating between the military, the Department of Space and ISRO.
India also launched the first dedicated military satellite this August for its navy, reflecting a gradual shift in the country’s approach to security. The maritime communications satellite is a necessary tool for the marine force as the competition for the Indian Ocean, particularly with China, gradually gathers pace.
From the outset of its space program, demonstrating technological pride and capability has always been an important consideration for India. No less so today. But the Mars mission is as much about demonstrating India’s capabilities as a force in space, as it is about scientific skill.