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G. Madhavan Nair
G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian space agency ISRO, speaking at CSIS in Washington on January 30. (credit: J. Foust)

India and the US: partners or rivals in space?

Near the end of his speech before the Space Transportation Association last month, NASA administrator Mike Griffin was asked to assess the state of America’s competition in the realm of human spaceflight (see “Defending Constellation”, The Space Review, February 4, 2008). He responded, predictably enough, with his concern that China would get back to the Moon before the US. He also praised Russia for continuing with its program through the turmoil of recent years, and said that he expected that Russia would also eventually send humans beyond low Earth orbit.

Griffin then threw out one more statement about another spacefaring nation, one that—as yet—has no human spaceflight capability: “India is not going to allow on the Asian continent for a Chinese capability that they don’t have.” That statement is an acknowledgement that the next government to launch humans into space is likely not going to be Europe or Japan—which have the technical capability but currently lack the political will—but instead India, which is rapidly developing both the technologies and political support needed for such a project. And should India succeed, it will be with very different—although as yet uncertain—ramifications for the US.

“I can confidently say that that vision of Dr. Sarabhai has been fulfilled,” Nair said, referring to the founder of the Indian space program and his emphasis on practical applications. “Today, we are at a turning point. We are looking at what’s next.”

For the last few years India’s space program has been in a state of transition. Since its inception in the early 1960s, India’s space efforts have been focused on practical applications. The nation eschewed not just human spaceflight but also robotic space exploration in favor of applications like communications and remote sensing that promised practical benefits to the Indian people (see “The other rising Asian space power”, The Space Review, December 18, 2006). Space was seen primarily as a means to raise the standard of living of a relatively poor nation, not as a tool of geopolitical prestige.

That approach has largely been a success for India. In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on January 30, G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), recapped the accomplishments of his agency in support of the Indian people. Indian remote sensing satellites have been used in roles ranging from disaster management to helping identify sources of drinking water in dry regions of the country. The nation’s fleet of communications satellites beams television programming into millions of homes, and also supports telemedicine and distance learning applications. India’s space program “is highly need-based, harnessing the high technology for space… to benefit the common man,” Nair said.

There is, though, a growing belief in India that this “need-based” approach, which dates back to the founder of the Indian space effort, Vikram Sarabhai, needs to evolve. “I can confidently say that that vision of Dr. Sarabhai has been fulfilled,” Nair said. “Today, we are at a turning point. We are looking at what’s next.”

The process for determining that next phase is already underway, with Nair describing a “brainstorming session” by the Indian scientific community. “They all came to the unanimous conclusion that space is going to be the next frontier of humankind,” he said. “It’s not only just looking at the planet Earth and trying to understand it and look for new resources in a very efficient manner for improving the life of other people, but space exploration will also play a very major role.”

The first step in that new emphasis on space exploration is approaching launch. Chandrayaan-1, the first Indian spacecraft to go the Moon, is scheduled for launch in April. The orbiter is carrying a suite of instruments from India as well as international partners, including two from the US: a mineralology mapper and a synthetic aperture radar.

Chandrayaan-1 is the first in what Nair envisions as a series of lunar missions for ISRO. “We are trying to look at what next, perhaps not only orbiting around the Moon but landing on the Moon and then trying to put some rovers, picking up samples, analyzing and relaying back,” he said. India has already signed an agreement with Russia to cooperate on the development of Chandrayaan-2, a mission Nair described as featuring both an orbiter and a lander. That mission would be launched in 2011 or 2012, he said. He added that he is open to additional international cooperation for that and other missions: “if there is an overwhelming interest in such missions, we won’t mind having another launch of another Chandrayaan, maybe Chandryaan-3.”

Then there is India’s growing interest in human spaceflight. While Nair did not address that in his prepared remarks, he was asked about ISRO’s plans in that area during a question-and-answer session that followed. “Right now we are in the conceptual study phase,” he said. “Of course, we recognize that the capability to have a man in space is very important to future exploration.” The design study is nearing completion, after which time ISRO plans to approach the government for funding. Once approved, Nair said it would take the agency seven or eight years to carry out the program and place humans in orbit.

Such an effort won’t come cheaply. While less than $10 million has been spent to date on human spaceflight studies, Nair estimated that the total development cost of a human spaceflight program for India would be about $2.5 billion. That’s a pittance for NASA, which spends more than that each year on the shuttle program, but is far larger than ISRO’s entire annual budget, which, despite recent increases, is still well under $1 billion a year.

“We believe that international cooperation, rather than competition, is going to be the norm for the future,” said Nair.

Should India make that investment, it would likely become the fourth country in the world with the ability to send humans into space (although it may be beat by one or more private ventures developing human orbital spaceflight systems.) That would further open the door to international cooperation—or competition—with countries like the US. India already has a long record of cooperation in space matters with the US, Russia, and Europe, although not with China: Nair noted in his speech that the only cooperation currently between India and China—rivals for primacy in Asia—is the sale of Indian remote sensing data to the Chinese government.

While Griffin hinted in his comments last month that India might rise to be another challenger to the US in space, right now the two countries are on a path towards cooperation, not competition. Just two days after Nair’s CSIS speech, he and Griffin signed a “framework agreement” outlining how NASA and ISRO can cooperate in future space ventures. “This agreement will allow us to cooperate effectively on a wide range of programs of mutual interest,” Griffin said in a statement announcing the agreement. “India has extensive space-related experience, capabilities and infrastructure, and will continue to be a welcome partner in NASA’s future space exploration activities.”

This cooperation has paralleled improving relations between the US and India. “When I was in charge of South Asia policy in the State Department, space was basically taboo,” said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at CSIS, in remarks introducing Nair. During that period, the late 1980s and early 1990s, the taboo was linked to concerns about the transfer of advanced technologies, which meant, she said, “basically anything involving getting stuff from Earth up was off-limits.”

While technology transfer concerns still exist, overall relations between the two nations have improved, which Schaffer credited to several factors, including the end of the Cold War, India’s economic growth, and the growing prominence of the Indian-American community in the US. “Fifteen years after the Cold War officially ended,” she said, “we have arrived at a point where the Indian and US governments, I think, have put in place much of the bilateral infrastructure we need for a more serious partnership in today’s world.”

All this suggests that, unlike China (which is clearly perceived as a rival to the US in space, even if fears of a new space race are overblown) and Russia (which is currently a partner in the ISS, but is increasingly looking to flex its muscles in space as it tries to revive its status as a superpower), India’s relationship with the US in space is likely to be far more cooperative than competitive, something Nair agrees with in general. “We believe that international cooperation, rather than competition, is going to be the norm for the future.”