THAT India is only the fourth country to soft land on the Moon and the first to touch down near the lunar south pole is a moment of great national celebration. This is also a moment to seize the new possibilities for India’s leadership in transforming the relationship between humanity and outer space.
Indeed, the one lunar day (two Earth weeks) that the Chandrayaan-3 rover will spend probing the southern polar region of the Moon heralds a new era in India’s engagement with space.
India’s successful moonshot comes when the major powers are moving away from treating space ventures as mere “prestige” projects to fly the flag. They want to gain a big share of the unfolding space industrialisation, extract extra-terrestrial mineral resources, and embark on deep space exploration. They also want to gain a military advantage in space over their geopolitical rivals on Earth.
The Moon has become a critical waystation for human’s future activity in space – a place to establish a self-sustaining presence and head from there to other parts of the cosmos. The race to the Moon’s south pole is based on the expectation that there will be water and other vital ingredients to support human activity.
Realising India’s full potential in the space domain demands an overhaul of Delhi’s strategy. Five imperatives stand out.
First, as former ISRO chairman K. Sivan put it, the time has come for India to look beyond “frugal engineering” and think big. The Indian space programme gets many compliments for getting such a big bang for its limited budget. But frugal innovation is no longer enough for India to make a difference to global activity on the Moon.
While Chandrayaan took nearly six weeks to get to the Moon, the failed Russian mission Luna-25 arrived there in a week. China’s Change-5 launched in 2020 took a week. In 1969, the US Apollo-11 mission, which landed the first men on the Moon, took just four days. The difference is in the power of the rockets. If India wants more impactful Moon projects, it needs bigger budgets and more powerful rockets that can arrive quicker and with heavier payloads to work on the Moon.
That brings us to the second imperative. The massive scale of resources needed for significant space projects means markets must contribute to the space budget, not just the government. India has taken the first steps this year by letting the private sector into the space programme.
This long overdue reform aligns with the broader global trend. In the second half of the 20thcentury, space activity was state-owned and driven by considerations of nationalism. Today space programmes are animated by commerce, and the private sector has emerged as a much bigger player than the state.
Third, privatisation alone is not enough. It needs to be complemented with international cooperation. There was a reason India had to rely on frugal innovation—technology sanctions. Although India’s space programme began with expansive international cooperation, especially with the US and the West, the non-proliferation sanctions that kicked in after India’s first nuclear test in May 1974 severely crimped India’s space programme.
Many of those sanctions are now gone, thanks to the historic 2005 India-US civil nuclear initiative. India is now part of the missile technology control regime that regulates trade in space technology and is a member of the Wassenaar Arrangement that sets the rules for the transfer of dual-use technologies.
India also recently joined the Artemis Accords, a set of non-binding space-use principles that the US and several like-minded countries have adopted. The massive cost of space programmes means no country, not even the US or China, can be an effective space player when they act alone.
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If past isolation compelled India to develop a purely national space programme, its lunar possibilities can only be realised through space partnerships and joint Moon projects. This involves managing two competing impulses.
It is only through partnerships that Delhi can raise its lunar profile. At the same time, India’s value as a partner to others will depend on its national capabilities. Facilitating greater private and foreign investments in the space sector and promoting more basic and applied research in space is critical to navigating this dynamic.
Fourth, the talk of international cooperation brings us to the real world of geopolitical competition. Great power rivalry on the Earth has inevitably begun to envelop the Moon. Two competing Moon projects are already at hand. The US is developing the Artemis Mission, with several partners, to land a man and a woman on the Moon by 2025. China has plans to do the same before 2030 and is working with Russia to build an International Lunar Research Station on the Moon.
Given India’s growing problems with China, it appears unlikely that Delhi will team up with Beijing on the Moon in the near term. It then needs to embark on a serious negotiation with the US on the possible terms of mutually beneficial Indian participation in the Artemis Mission.
Finally, with outer space and the Moon set for an increased range of activity, Delhi needs laws – domestic as well as international – for its effective promotion and regulation. At home, Delhi needs to follow up its Space Policy, issued in April this year, with legislation that facilitates and regulates space business.
India must also pay serious attention to shaping the global governance of space. Delhi played a key role at the UN in drafting the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. India is among the states that signed the 1979 Moon Treaty.
That regime is now under stress amidst changing technology, growing human activity in space, and mounting great power rivalries.
The innocent idealism and universalism that guided India’s approach to space in the last century are at odds with the current international realities. Delhi, however, must join hands with like-minded nations to reform the current outer space order.
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While geopolitical rivalry is a reality, Delhi must work to limit competition and expand cooperation in outer space. Even at the height of the Cold War in the 20th century, space remained an arena for cooperation among the major powers.
After the exhilarating success of Chandrayaan-3, India must strive to rekindle that spirit and ensure that outer space remains a province of all mankind.
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(The writer is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express)