India Gains on China in Asia's Space Race

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India's Chandrayaan-1.

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. The mood in the control room was of jubilation as stern-faced scientists relaxed and broke into applause when all the separation processes were completed smoothly. With space capability deemed to translate into greater technological standing and strategic clout, the moon mission has been a giant ego-boost for India. "It is a proud moment for us," Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal said after the countdown began on Monday.

Some have questioned the logic of a country still so deeply mired in poverty spending $80m on a scientific pursuit akin to reinventing the wheel. Dr K. Kasturirangan, who was chairperson of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when the Chandrayaan-I project was announced, has no patience for this argument: "It is not a question of whether we can afford it," he says, "it's whether we can afford to ignore it." He points out that $80 million is a relatively low budget for a space mission. "And 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. In addition, the probe will spend the next two years mapping the entire lunar surface for minerals, including Helium-3 which is sought for nuclear fusion research, to which India could lay claim in future. India's scientific community also hopes such prestigious projects will help them compete with the better-paying private sector to attract more scientists to the country's space program.

ISRO programs have, until recently, focused mainly on the country's development needs, launching satellites for landscape and resource mapping, weather forecasting, communications and educational broadcasts. In recent years, though, it has been trying to win a larger share of the international commercial launch industry, launching satellites for Canada, South Korea, Israel and other countries. But Chandrayaan-I takes India's space program to a new frontier. "This is really a gear shift in a sense," says Subhadra Menon, whose book Destination Moon chronicles the history of the lunar mission. "Chandrayaan-I is a purely scientific, exploratory mission."

And then, of course, there's the strategic dimension, with Japan, South Korea and, especially, China heating up the Asian space race. China, long viewed as India's most important strategic competitor, caused a storm last year when it shot down one of its defunct satellites, sparking fears of an arms race in space. In October last year, China launched its first mission to orbit the moon. China's exploits are definitely a factor in India's space efforts, says Swapna Kona Nayudu, associate fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies. "We're neighbors, rising Asian giants and suspicious of each other," she adds. Now, the two nations will now compete to land a man on the moon — both have announced plans to do it by around 2020.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, India's ruling Congress party is hoping that the surge of techno-nationalism spurred Chandrayaan-I and, before it, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, will boost its prospects in next year's elections. The government has recently approved Chandrayaan-II, a much more ambitious mission to send a lander/rover to the moon by 2012. ISRO has also announced that it aims to send robotic missions to other planets and asteroids. "What is the purpose of 8% [economic] growth if we can't make the spending necessary to sustain this growth," says Kasturirangan, pointing out that like nuclear technology, space capability for a lunar mission is one of the indices of high-technology development that a developing country like India must acquire not only assert its stature but also to power its own growth. "The 21st century will be the century of planetary exploration. If India wants to be taken seriously among the leading space players, it must first get the right credentials." But later this week, when newspaper headlines return to high inflation and a slowing economy, even the most moonstruck of Indian voters will forget the excitement of Chandrayaan-I. Then, only astrologers will see the moon as having any bearing on how Indians will vote early next year.

Click here for photos of China's space program