Here's my OpEd on India's Mars mission published by Global Times (China) yesterday.
My core argument is that India's space program was not originally driven by big ambitions. As noted by Vikram Sarabhai, one of India's space pioneers, 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."
But this has changed. India is no longer as poor and backward as it was in the 1960s when Sarabhai spoke. The increasing intensity of international competition means that India needs to show off its abilities once in a while.
India successfully launched a Mars mission, the Mangalyaan, on November 5. The mission is a major demonstration of India's technological capabilities, and a reflection of the growing competition in the Asian space race.
At $73 million, this is one of the most cost-effective Mars missions. But the political and security considerations are also important. Being the first Asian country to conduct such a mission must also have been an important factor in India's calculations.
Despite being one of the most cost-effective missions yet, questions have been raised as to why India spends money on such efforts when it is faced with dire poverty and developmental issues at home.
There has been criticism, both in India and outside, about the waste of resources on spectacle while developmental needs remain unmet.
It is undoubtedly true that India has significant developmental challenges on which it needs to spend money and effort. Nevertheless, there are at least three important reasons for conducting such missions.
First, while India has poverty and developmental issues, it also has to develop its scientific and technological base. It would be foolish to suggest that India should ignore scientific and technological advances until all developmental issues are resolved.
High technology projects such as the moon mission in 2008 and now its Mars mission are important both for technology development as well as to motivate the scientific community and the general populace.
Space technology and assets are needed for everything from communications to weather forecasting. No nation, especially a developing one, can ignore such technologies. But such technologies and capacities cannot be developed without also developing India's space capabilities in general, which is why the Mangalyaan is important.
Space is a vital aspect of India's security. India does not live in a benign neighborhood and it has had to balance between its development and security needs. No major power can afford to ignore the importance of space technology for its military needs.
India has launched its first dedicated military satellite for the Indian navy, in recognition of the increasing geopolitical and military rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Staying in the space race is thus an important consideration for India because it affects other aspects of India's security.
There are increasing worries that space itself might become a direct security threat. The threat of the militarization of space is gaining greater momentum. And the idea of establishing an Indian aerospace command has been gaining greater traction.
Given its experience in the nuclear arms control area, India has to come to understand the importance of crossing a certain technological threshold if it wants to sit at the high table.
In the nuclear arena, India did not conduct an atomic test in the 1960s even though it had the capacity to do so and therefore found itself left out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and various other aspects of the NPT regime.
Today, world powers are debating a regime to regulate outer space activities. India cannot let itself be left out of any space regime as happened over nuclear weapons.
But in order to be heard in the discussions of any new rule-making effort, India needs to demonstrate its capabilities in space research and technology, something that the Mangalyaan amply did.