On 24 september, when Mangalyaan achieved orbit around Mars, the newswire Reuters offered a parting shot: “Despite its success, India faces criticism for spending on space research as millions go hungry.” The BBC, which doesn’t miss any opportunity to highlight India’s poverty, said the mission was successful but “400 million Indians still live without electricity and 600 million people still do not have access to toilets”.
Somebody should point out to these western mouthpieces that if the US had waited until there were no poor Americans before sending astronauts to the moon, then the Apollo rockets would still be sitting on the launch pad. For, there are more than 50 million Americans suffering from chronic hunger.
Being the next frontier of colonisation, space touches a raw nerve in the West. Having colonised most of the planet in the past 300 years, western nations, especially the US and the UK, instinctively react with hostility when emerging powers reach for the final frontier.
Most people wonder what the argument is all about. After all, isn’t space sort of limitless? Yes, but in the solar system, there are just two places where humans can hope to establish colonies in the next 100 years. These are the moon and Mars.
A quick glance at history shows that on our own planet we reached the limits of exploration and conquest three centuries ago. During the colonial era, pirates such as Francis Drake of England were backed by their countries to find new land, gold and slaves for the greater glory of their country.
The nations of Western Europe despatched — or rather expelled — their surplus and unwanted populations into the newly ‘discovered’ territories of North and South America, Africa and Oceania, eventually claiming entire continents in the name of their king, queen or Pope.
The parallels to colonialism are hardly far-fetched. In 2010, American Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, wrote on the need for Americans to return to earth’s only satellite: “Some question why Americans should return to the moon. After all, they say, ‘we have already been there’. I find that mystifying. It would be as if 16th century monarchs proclaimed that ‘we need not go to the New World, we have already been there’. Americans have visited and examined six locations on Luna, varying in size from a suburban lot to a small township. That leaves more than 14 million square miles yet to explore.”
Many Americans share Armstrong’s colonising zeal. As a US expert declared in 2012 after the Curiosity rover landed on Mars: “The red planet is firmly in American hands.” In fact, after decades of drift at nasa, the US is now incubating tomorrow’s private space adventurers.
In May 2010, SpaceX — founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk — made history when its Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS). On 21 June 2013, the company was awarded a contract to launch Turkmenistan’s first satellite to geostationary orbit.
SpaceX faces stiff competition from a long line of US companies, including Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and PlanetSpace, which will be competing to carry astronauts and satellites into orbit. Chicago-based PlanetSpace, which is co-owned by India-born Chirinjeev Kathuria, is eyeing a $3 billion commercial contract that will ship cargo to the iss.
And that’s just the big boys, says online magazine Quartz: “Lots of other private American companies enter each year to win prizes designed to spur innovation in manned space flight and moon landings.” Across the Atlantic, British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is selling tickets for suborbital — edge of space — flights in SpaceShipTwo and has unveiled LauncherOne, its small satellite launch system.
The rash of private players gives the West a huge advantage in space. According to the California Institute of Technology, “Private corporations have ambitious agendas for orbital payload delivery and astronaut transport, space tourism and even interplanetary travel. The share of space technologies developed and built in the private sphere continues to increase as both old and new companies ramp up their space efforts. Space agencies around the world, including in the US, are increasing their reliance on these services to reduce costs and avoid long development cycles.”
Where the US is roping in private companies, the Indian space programme is largely State-funded, and private firms are fringe players. However, the biggest problem is India’s space programme is chronically underfunded. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has to make do with a measly $1 billion — 5 percent of NASA’s budget. The budget has not increased proportionate to the increase in the number of missions — up from three to 14 per year over the past decade. The number of scientists, engineers and support staff in ISRO has also remained unchanged at around 16,000.
In contrast, the space industry of China — which achieved its first manned mission in 2003 — employs more than 120,000 technical staff. And in 2020, the country will be in a club of one. That year when the ISS is decommissioned and meets a fiery end over the Pacific Ocean, China will become the only nation to have a space station. Around that time, the first Chinese men — or women — will walk on the moon.
While the Chinese are working tirelessly to rocket ahead of the West, the Indian political class lacks strategic vision and our scientists are not beyond petty professional envy. The loudest critic of the Mars mission was none other than former ISRO head G Madhavan Nair. “It would be a national waste,” he had told Science magazine, following the announcement of the mission in 2012. He described the project as “a half-baked, half-cooked mission being attempted in undue haste with misplaced objectives”.
There are other fringe elements, such as Jean Drèze, a development economist at the Delhi School of Economics, and leftist writer Praful Bidwai, who want the country to scale down its space ambitions.
“I don’t understand the importance of India sending a space mission to Mars when half of its children are undernourished and half of all Indian families have no access to sanitation,” Drèze told the Financial Times. According to him, space research is “part of the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”.
Practically frothing at the mouth, Bidwai wrote in November 2013: “The Mars mission is overwhelmingly irrelevant to space science and won’t advance the frontiers of knowledge. It will divert attention from the real technological challenges facing the Indian space programme, and will further distort our science and technology priorities.” Do newspapers pay him to write such infantile, laboured prose?
Clearly, India’s Macaulayites — a class of people Indian in look but westernised in their outlook — cannot be accused of having any national pride.
Nations that have access to space will dominate those left below. It’s as simple as that. In the decades ahead, as the earth’s finite resources begin to deplete, the mining of the moon and the asteroids will become necessary. Only nations having the ability to extract these resources will be able to colonise the final frontier. Large rotating space stations alone can generate the artificial gravity required for humans to avoid the debilitating effects of prolonged weightlessness.
Significantly, space flight will change how we travel just as the Internet transformed the way we communicate. “The Internet has opened up the world to rapid information exchange. Suborbital space flight will do the exact same thing to travel,” Kathuria of PlanetSpace told this writer via email.
What ISRO needs are clear goals — first a manned spaceflight, then the moon and plans for colonising Mars after that. These goals are necessary to attract the next generation of scientific pioneers.
The good news is after decades of being the world’s most low-profile space agency, ISRO is now preparing for a high-octane push into space. Mylswamy Annadurai, the scientist behind the successful Mars and moon (Chandrayaan 1) missions and the upcoming Chandrayaan 2, told The New Indian Express that “our long-term mission will be to have a permanent research station on the moon”.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that if India lags behind in the space race, then 21st century cities on the moon and Mars are likely to have names like New Seattle and New Washington rather than New Bangalore or Navi Mumbai.