India’s moon landing sets the tone for a new type of space race

Chandrayaan 3 mission image provided on ISRO Facebook page Aug. 20, 2023.

More than 200,000 miles from the “pale blue dot” where human history has unfolded, the fates met by two small robots on the surface of the moon tell the stories of shifting international politics on their planet of origin.

India’s Chandrayaan-3 module succeeded last week in landing the first lunar rover to explore the moon’s southern polar region, where signs of water as ice have driven new scientific interest. The moment, after a countdown that evoked the lofty ambitions and high nationalism of last century’s space race, captured the attention of a nation eager for an uncontroversial triumph on the world stage. “As the spacecraft approached the moon, India seemed to be briefly unified by a national obsession rivaling cricket,” The Washington Post’s Gerry Shih reported from New Delhi.

The rover is already at work and confirmed the presence of sulfur on the lunar surface Monday, according to India’s Space Research Organization.

A Russian lunar-landing attempt a few days prior took a very different turn, spinning out of control and crashing into the moon. The failure – which brought an abrupt end to Russia’s first moon attempt in 47 years – seemed to mark a broader shift among the space-going nations. As Russia’s Cold War glory days, when it raced head-to-head with the United States to conquer space, dwindle to a shadow, new aspirants are taking a share of the field: India, still reveling in last week’s success, and China, whose Yutu-2 rover is exploring the dark side of the moon, and which has proposed a multinational moon base.

India carried out its expedition on a relatively shoestring budget of $74 million, far cheaper than making the Hollywood sci-fi epic “Interstellar” – a sign that the prestige and soft power of space exploration do not require the funding or ambitions of NASA to achieve a high impact or to accrue the prestige that has always motivated such exploration. Russia didn’t publicize its mission budget, but by some estimates, it was more than double India’s. NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get astronauts’ boots back on the moon by 2025, is projected to hit $93 billion.

While the United States is still the world leader in space exploration, today’s cut-price space race, with lower barriers to entry and enticing new stakes, is becoming a broader affair.

For governments, space exploration was always in large part about the ability to project power and influence on Earth. India’s mission marks a soft-power win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as New Delhi prepares to host the Group of 20 Summit next week. A Pew survey released Tuesday found that international views of India are generally positive and that Indians are much more likely than others to see the country as on the rise.

“This moment is the announcement of an advanced India,” Modi said after the landing. “We had taken a pledge on Earth and realized it on the moon.”

Though India’s space program began in the 1960s, its focus until the turn of the century was on development and practical applications, such as satellite television, rather than high-visibility prestige programs, said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

But as India’s economy transformed and liberalized – amid impetus to match China’s interstellar moves – India’s orientation toward space has changed. “They see themselves as being another major space-faring power,” said Pace, who served as executive secretary of the National Space Council.

Modi has engaged in space diplomacy before. Leading the only South Asian nation with orbital launch capacity, Modi funded a satellite – “a priceless gift,” he said at the time – for shared use by six geographic neighbors.

Moving forward, New Delhi could become a more significant partner of choice for nations eager to reach beyond Earth on a budget, said Namrata Goswami, an expert in space policy and great power.

Space is no longer a two-way battle. It’s about partnerships – an approach championed in the U.S. national space policy – between both governments and companies.

The United States is linked with its traditional allies, as well as traditionally nonaligned India, through the 2020 Artemis Accords, which formalize cooperation for the long-term vision of a moon base from which NASA is to prepare for the first human mission to Mars. Beijing has gone its own way with its private space station dubbed “Heavenly Place.” It also signed a memorandum of understanding with Moscow to create a lunar research station and ramped up space cooperation with Latin America, the Gulf nations and others.

Cooperation between the United States and Russia, at a low point elsewhere because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, remains intact aboard the International Space Station.

Once, the tone of the space race was: “‘Look at me, I can do something no one else can do. Aren’t I cool?'” Pace said. Today, it’s: “‘We can do really ambitious, powerful things, do you want to be a part of it? Do you want to be in the club?'”

More than 70 countries run active space programs and collaborate. The African Union established a regional space agency this year. Saudi Arabia launched an astronaut training program last September. Thailand’s nascent space program is increasing its satellite-building capacity. The Mars Mission probe of the United Arab Emirates is still releasing data, and the Gulf nation says it wants to reach the asteroid belt.

The economics of the space race have shifted, with a new emphasis on limited budgets and commercial outcomes. The prize is not just prestige, but also potentially billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

“The end goal is: How do you make moon missions commercially viable, and how do you make space profitable?” Goswami said.

Whether the moon’s resources are commercially useful is “still really unknown,” Pace said. India’s mission could help answer that question: Water ice could be potentially mined for rocket refueling and life support.

Between satellite communications and navigation, resource extraction, remote sensing, space tourism and other enterprise, the space economy could yield a significant windfall.

Countries are taking notice. Modi opened up the sector to private enterprise in 2020, and the number of Indian space start-ups have skyrocketed. China is pushing for the commercial development of space, and the United States is collaborating with an advanced private space industry.

Goswami sees the shift toward more cost-effective public-private partnerships, but not in Russia, which she says continues to work under a Cold War framework – one of the reasons that its latest lunar mission failed, she argues.

In the United States, smaller private companies are competing to make names for themselves, and large ones already have. The term “space race” is just as likely to evoke competing efforts by billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as it is international competition.

Among the enterprises cropping up is Astrobotic Technology, a Pittsburgh-based commercial lunar delivery company. “You pay them $1.2 million and they put a kilogram on the moon,” Pace said. The Mexican Space Agency bought a ride for five tiny robots, potentially making it the first Latin American country to make a lunar landing.

Space exploration holds continued appeal because it allows governments to show that they are “voting for an optimistic future,” Pace said. “Because we expect to be important countries not only now, but in the future – and space is going to be a part of that future and we intend to be there.”



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