India’s impressive and successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 near the South Pole of the Moon ushers in a new era of space exploration. While being driven by Modi’s nationalist politics, and signaling the end of the dominance of space by the US, China and Russia, it also demonstrates the limits of such national projects. International cooperation is the future of space, argues Tony Milligan.
Chandrayaan-3’s soft landing near to the lunar South Pole was a thing of beauty. A gentle and well-controlled arc towards a welcoming surface. There were no last-minute surprises, and few landings have ever seemed so smooth. Certainly not the failed Russian attempt to set Luna-25 down on the surface only a few days earlier. Nor India’s own unsuccessful attempt at a soft touchdown back in 2019, when expectations were not so high.
This success four years later, impressive as it is, does not put India on a par with China and the US as a space superpower. But it does underline its place within the Asian big three: China, India, and Japan, with China being the leader. It also indicates that India will eventually overtake the increasingly dysfunctional Russian space program. Not yet though. Indian funding sits around $1.6bn, roughly, a dollar for every citizen in the country, and less than half of Russia’s space budget. Overall, the successful Chandrayaan-3 mission cost only about the same as the average Hollywood movie, and significantly less than the production costs of Barbie. In the bigger picture, India’s success at landing near the south pole of the Moon indicates a move towards the so-called democratization of space.
An assertive ethnic nationalism driving Narendra Modi’s politics has clearly played a role in pushing for this moon landing
Its value in terms of promoting inclusion in space activities is difficult to gauge. It is certainly heartwarming to see a successful program run out of a Mission Control where the faces were not mostly white or (harking back to previous, yet not distant, times) almost exclusively male. India’s success is certainly part of the larger process sometimes referred to as the the democratization of space: an increasing number of players and a growing level of diversity. India’s success also challenges the image of space programs as a preoccupation of billionaires and imaginary plans for their eventual escape from Earth. While there remains a great deal of soul crushing poverty among India’s massive population, there has been a significant reduction in recent decades. Investment in advanced technologies is part of this process.
The targeting of the lunar South Pole is also significant, given competition for the resources concentrated there. This area now figures prominently in mission targeting for every nation with a spaceflight capability – a point that underscores the emerging competition for limited accessible space resources. An assertive ethnic nationalism driving Narendra Modi’s politics has clearly played a role in pushing for this moon landing, as a way of signaling to the world India’s place among the major players in advanced technologies, and a contender for taking advantage of space’s resources.
Of course, given the current funding levels there is a solid upper limit upon what India can achieve. We are not about to see the launch of a new India space station. In a sense, the secret to India’s success is budget limitation, and the way in which it focuses attention upon a limited number of achievable but noteworthy goals.
That higher price tag for further space exploration will rapidly push India towards greater co-operation.
A different pathway to this nationalist approach to space exploration, is that of the European Space Agency (ESA). Even though it has a budget that is four times as large, it hasn’t used it to ‘get there first’. That’s because ESA is trying to escape the 1960s space race mindset. ESA has multiple commitments and a preference for co-operative international arrangements with multiple players beyond the bounds of Europe. This is a good way to go, and one that holds possibilities to mitigate any knock-on effects from competition in space to military competition on the ground. However, it does make it harder to achieve any big, go it alone, success. India’s space program is super-targeted because it has to be. This makes it exceptional value for money and good for both economy and society. But there are a lot of things that it cannot do. A fuller range of activities in space will come with a much higher price tag.
That higher price tag for further space exploration will rapidly push India towards greater co-operation. But co-operation with who? The temptation is to imagine India deepening its existing work with China. But India’s longer range ambitions are not those of a junior partner. And border tensions on the ground, between India and China, are unlikely to promote any one-sided alignment. That may open up opportunities for a more varied pattern to emerge, with space co-operations running in different directions. A pattern that might work with some more diverse and pluralistic civic nationalism, but it could put a strain upon a Modi-style ethic nationalist space narrative.
As Indian expenditure on its space program rises and its successes accumulate, voices questioning India’s motivations will no doubt get louder. Familiar arguments are already made to the effect that money spent on space programs might be better spent directly upon the poor, who are still not in short supply. But there are special reasons for caution about this kind of argument in the Indian case. It can operate as a thin veneer covering over some barely concealed forms of racism. The sight of a former colony outstripping the achievements of its previous owner will not please everyone.
The US, China, Russia, all have national space programs motivated in multiple ways, some admirable, some more questionable. Motivations of accomplishment and prestige sit alongside commercial interest and strategic geopolitical ambitions. Why should India be any different? At the same time, we shouldn’t forget the awesome nature of the feat India has just achieved. Or loose sight of the fact that Indian achievements are also human achievements, in the same way that US and Chinese successes in space are human achievements. Steps of some sort into a larger world, a world where some of the older players no longer call all the shots.