India’s Sputnik moment


 India on Mars

Sometimes history repeats itself. While the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on a legendary space race to the moon during the Cold War, a similar story seems to take place nowadays in Asia, where China, Japan and India battle for supremacy in space. All three have been preparing their own Mars mission during the past decade. A Japanese launch failed in 2003, and a Chinese-Russian project to Mars failed to leave the earth's orbit in 2011, prompting China to declare that it would not try again for years to come. The Asian competition is, of course, contrary to the Cold War, embedded within the liberal framework of economic globalization and cooperation, but some similarities remain. 

India's seemingly successful launch thus hands India a sweet technological and political victory in the field of interplanetary exploration - at a time when the world hears few good news from the world's largest democracy, which was once everybody's darling. So far, only the United States, Europe and Russia have been able to launch successful mission to Mars. If India pulls of the trick, it will join a select elite club, the first developing country to do so. For a day or two, the daily avalanche of negative news about corruption, crime and poverty gave way to national pride and collective self-confidence. Indian society has long had an interest in astronomy: Indian children learn in school about the ancient astronomer Aryabhata and his important works about the solar system.

At the same time, both within India and abroad, critics point out that persistent levels of poverty and severe problems with basic infrastructure in many parts of the country should be the government's priority. Why spend millions of rupees for a space program when millions of Indians languish in poverty?

Before coming to such a conclusion, however, it must be noted that at a cost of about $72m, India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is very cheap by the standards of planetary missions. NASA's Maven Mars mission - which will take place later this year - costs almost ten times as much. India could therefore become a leader in low-budget space research and help making it affordable for many other developing countries.

Its supporters rightly point out that India's space program is about more than just political prestige or potential commercial gain. It helps improve meteorological forecasting, which proved particularly helpful recently when the government evacuated one million people from regions along the Southeastern coastline due to an approaching cyclone. Security matters, too. Recently, India launched its first military satellite for naval intelligence gathering, amid growing concerns about a Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. India’s National Satellite System is linked to its Integrated Missile Development Program, which built India’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles. India's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program is successful partly due to the cooperation between the civilian scientific community and the defense industry.

Euphoria may be widespread, but the scientific verdict on India's Mars Mission will only come later, of course. It is worth remembering that India’s first lunar mission, which was meant to explore the moon for two years, was declared lost after about 300 days due to technical difficulties. Until then, Aryabhata's heirs will hope for the best. 

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Picture credit: NASA