Reaching Mars: is it about great power status?
by Ajey Lele
|In the ten months since the successful launch of MOM there has been a big debate, both domestically and internationally, about whether a developing country like India attempt such a high profile space mission.|
Mars has been an enigma for the global scientific community for many decades. Since the 1960s, several countries have launched various missions to Mars; MOM is one of two spacecraft currently en route to the planet. For ISRO, Mars mission is a part of their overall planetary research agenda. ISRO looks that this mission mainly as a mission with high learning value for future missions. Reaching Martian orbit has been one of the biggest technological challenges for advanced space powers, and India would become the first Asian country to attain such feat if it succeeds on September 24.
In the ten months since the successful launch of MOM there has been a big debate, both domestically and internationally, about whether a developing country like India attempt such a high profile space mission, particularly when the country is yet to satisfactorily address various social and economic challenges. Interestingly, the cost this mission is approximately US$70 million (4.5 billion rupees), which actually is even less than the production cost of the movie Gravity (around $100 million) or equal to the cost of a medium-sized aircraft! Also, it needs to be emphasized that the socioeconomic benefits of India’s space program enormously outweigh Indian investments into the missions like Moon and Mars.
Unfortunately, for last couple of months the examination of India’s Mars program has mainly revolved around issues like the so-called paucity of societal development in India. The key focus was always about discussing lack of basic infrastructure in regards to food, clean drinking water, sanitation facilities, and so on. There have been diverse opinions on this subject and a few argued that India is unnecessarily undertaking such “elitist” missions. There weren’t many informed debates that scrutinized India’s technological capabilities and checked the scientific value of India’s mission.
This low-cost mission has various intricate phases that include launch, a 300-day journey from Earth to Mars, orbit insertion, and, finally, observations of Mars. So far the journey for this mission has been very satisfactory. After a perfect launch, ISRO has succeeded in keeping the spacecraft and its five scientific instruments in good health throughout the mission.
So far, the mission had encountered only one major difficulty, but ISRO had a plan in place to resolve this difficulty. To get the spacecraft out of the sphere of influence of the Earth, five orbit-raising maneuvers were planned by ISRO after launch of the spacecraft into an initial parking orbit. The fourth orbit-raising operation conducted on November 11 did not work as planned, failing to raise the spacecraft’s apogee as much as planned. However, ISRO carried out a supplementary orbit-raising maneuver successfully the next day.
|Would an Indian spacecraft operating in the vicinity of Mars—the first Asian nation to do so—become a defining movement to showcase the nation’s technological progress?|
It is obvious that, in such a long journey, there could be some variations in the trajectory of the vehicle. To maintain the correct trajectory, ISRO has proposed four Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TCMs) for the entire heliocentric journey. So far, two TCMs have been carried out as planned and, since the spacecraft is travelling on the correct track, the planned TCM in August was not carried out. A final TCM is planned for around September 14. So far, MOM’s communication network has been working perfectly and the spacecraft has succeeded in handling various radiation-related challenges en route Mars.
For ISRO, the MOM mission offers various technological and scientific challenges. For them, this mission is an important interplanetary assignment. However, for India is this mission only about the quest of learning more about Mars, or there is something more to it? What could be geopolitical implications about India’s Mars agenda? In 2008, India successfully completed its first Moon mission and was also instrumental towards finding the presence of water on the Moon. Has this success made any difference in India’s global stature? Would an Indian spacecraft operating in the vicinity of Mars—the first Asian nation to do so—become a defining movement to showcase the nation’s technological progress?
Today, opinions about India’s Mars mission are diverse, but the world is definitely taking note of India’s overall space vision and its achievements in the space domain. Would a successful insertion of a spacecraft into Mars orbit help India enhance its global standing? Would India’s approach towards transformation of the country, based on economic and technological dominance, place it in the league of major powers in the world? Historically, it’s clear that “Great Powers” influence world politics. It could be a case of excessive optimism to consider that one orbital Mars mission could put India in the category of such powers. However, could a successful human Moon or Mars mission transform India into a great power in future?
Kenneth Waltz, the noted American political scientist, has argued that countries could be placed in the top rank because they excel in one way or another. This rank would depend on the strength and size of population, natural resources at their disposal, economic strength, military potential, political stability, and competence. Normally, the competence of the country depends on technological capabilities and technical expertise along with other factors.
During the World Wars and the Cold War era, many believed that a country that can assertively challenge any other major power to fight a war could be considered a Great Power. However, today economic and technological competitiveness could also be viewed as important tenets to recognize a great power. Even during the Cold War era, the United States’ success with its human lunar program 45 years ago was considered by many as an expression of its great power status. Now the question is whether a country like India, which is far behind the US, ESA, Russia, and China in its overall space capabilities, dream of achieving great power status based on its achievement in space?
|Any earthshaking achievements in the space arena could take India out of the sphere of influence of South Asian politics, the poverty debate, and third world and developing country status, and bring it closer to becoming a great power.|
Broadly, it could be argued that India has geography, natural resources, and population size to its advantage. Some reports estimate that by 2020, India would become the world’s youngest country with 64 percent of its population in the working age group. At the same time, all the current great powers would have aging populations and, in many cases, a negative rate of growth as well. During the last few years and in spite of various challenges at the tactical level, India has demonstrated a stable economic architecture and has successfully withstood the global economic crisis. India has a reasonably well-established science and technology infrastructure that supports innovation. However, India is yet to completely develop its defense industry complex.
India has the third largest military in the world and is a nuclear weapon state. India has a significant amount of soft power influence owing to its cultural and political standing. India’s expertise in the field of information technology has been globally recognized and its progress in the field of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals is noteworthy. India has a vibrant diaspora, some of whom hold very important political and industrial positions in various parts of the world.
What India requires today is some change in its image. India is unnecessarily being strategically boxed in to South Asian politics by the major powers. Also, there is an attempt to use India as a ‘pawn’ to check the rise of China. To change all this, India needs to do a slingshot! Any earthshaking achievements in the space arena could take India out of the sphere of influence of South Asian politics, the poverty debate, and third world and developing country status, and bring it closer to becoming a great power.