SPEAKING FREELY India rises above China 'space race' myth
By Anand V
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India's successful launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) on November 5 once again drew worldwide attention to the country's growing space program.
This is India's maiden venture to the red planet and is therefore its first real step towards planetary exploration. The Mangalyaan orbiter of the MOM is hoped to become the first Indian spacecraft
to thrust itself out of the earth's gravitational field.
The earlier Mars exploration missions consisted of orbiting, landing and even using rovers on the Martian surface to study its atmosphere, topography and geology. India will just be orbiting Mars in a highly elliptical orbit and making observations regarding the Martian atmosphere using five indigenously made scientific instruments.
With the completion of this mission, India will join the American, Russian and the European space agencies as the only spacefaring entities to have sent missions to Mars.
The primary objective of the mission is to conduct technology demonstrations related to planetary space flight and deep space-mission management. The orbiter will also study the Martian atmosphere for the presence of Methane gas using the on-board Methane sensor.
If the mission succeeds, the information regarding Methane gas presence in Mars will prove critical for exploring the possibility of life on the red planet. It would also be a first because none of the earlier Mars missions have answered this specific question.
The successful launch of the MOM was implemented by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in a record minimum time of 15 months as well as a record low cost of US$73 million. That the ISRO has become capable of attempting planetary explorations is highly noteworthy given its extremely humble origins and a difficult period of development.
India's space program has withstood numerous political hurdles and economic constraints. Amid the accolades, there were also criticisms from within and outside the country about the MOM. There have also been certain myths which have been propagated which denigrate India's Mars mission as a frantic attempt to get ahead of China in an emerging space race.
It is necessary to deflate such far-fetched arguments and explore the real geopolitical implications of India's successful launch of the MOM. It is also required to identify as to how this success can be used to strengthen India's space program.
Firstly, India's Mars mission cannot be compared to that of China based only on the launch success of MOM. The Mars mission of China failed not at its launch into earth's orbit, but during its attempt to escape it. The Yinghuo-1 was supposed to be launched into the Mars transfer orbit by the Russian spacecraft Fobos-Grunt craft, which failed to take off.
India's Mangalyaan has not reached this stage, as it will be departing Earth's orbit for Mars only by the end of November 2013. India has only successfully injected its Mars orbiter into Earth's orbit. The time is therefore not yet ripe for India's mars mission "success" to be compared to the "failure" of China's.
In fact, most of the failures of previous Mars missions happened at this critical stage of leaving the Earth's orbit for Martian one. As a result, any generalized declaration of success of MOM, and its comparison with China's will be premature.
Secondly, viewing planetary missions from a standpoint of a "space race" hardly fits with either the emerging geopolitics or the strategic value of such missions. Planetary missions or manned missions have more of a prestige value apart from the scientific and technological expertise which could be developed.
These would have had tremendous weight during the Cold War era, but is of comparatively less strategic significance in today's world. On the other hand, space race appears to emerge as a reality, especially in the Sino-Indian context, in the field of militarization, weaponization and commercialization of space.
When the official sources from India deny the existence of any space race with China, it may be the reality in case of missions such as MOM, but not necessarily so in the three sectors mentioned above. At best, such scientific and technology demonstration missions may contribute certain specific capabilities as by-products to the emerging space race sectors, such as attracting young talented minds, certain technological contributions and boosting national morale.
One such spin-off is the strengthening of the reputation of India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The real success in the case of the MOM mission so far is undoubtedly that of its launch vehicle. The PSLV has had a remarkable success in terms of launching satellites into orbit.
The rocket was successful 24 times and had only one failure so far and that too in its first developmental flight in 1993. The much higher capacity Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) was definitely a better candidate for the MOM. However, the considerable delay in transforming the GSLV rocket into a reliable carrier made the ISRO choose the time tested PSLV for the role.
The window of opportunity for an economic and practical voyage to Mars is possible only once in two years and therefore waiting for the GSLV would have required valuable sacrifices in terms of both time and money. The fact that the PSLV was used instead, to successfully carry out a near perfect injection of Mangalyaan into earth orbit makes it a flagship of India's space program.
In this context, India needs to make use of the benefits accrued to its PSLV carrier-launcher, which is riding on the wave of success of the MOM launch. The reflection of these benefits will certainly fall on the commercial space service industry of India, which indeed needs boosting and re-orientation.
The reliability of PSLV being strengthened, the cost-effectiveness achieved through this mission can be recreated and refined to market India's international commercial launch services. India needs to specifically attract more customers from the developing world where there are an increasing number of nations aspiring to have their own satellites in space, an area where China is already much ahead. The spin-offs on launch reliability and cost reduction from the MOM mission will certainly add on to the appeal of India's commercial space services industry.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Anand V is a PhD Candidate and Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University.