The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Aldrin moonwalk photo
India discussed mounting its own human lunar mission a few years ago, but has since backed away from that goal. Was that a good decision? (credit: NASA)

India aborts a human Moon mission

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Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, died on August 25. Counting his Apollo 11, only six human missions carrying 12 people have landed on the Moon. Apollo 17, which landed on the Moon in December 1972, was last among them. Since then no one has even attempted to repeat this accomplishment. However, in recent years a few nations have started showing interest in repeating this American achievement.

In January 2009, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) indicated that it could undertake a human Moon mission by 2020. Now, there appears to be some change this stated position. During first week of September, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. V. Narayanasamy, mentioned there are no immediate plans for such a mission, although India remains interested in human spaceflight to low Earth orbit.

Is this decision regressive and shortsighted? Is India losing an opportunity to project its technological superiority? Or does India understand the limited relevance of such mission? This article analyses various such factors by raising few questions.

In a nutshell, a human Moon mission is a financially affordable, technologically feasible, and globally and regionally respectable proposal for India.

First, are the reasons economic? Is India not in a position to afford such mission? On August 15, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that India would undertake its first robotic Mars mission in 2013. There has been some criticism in certain quarters about this mission. The argument is simple: why go to Mars by spending approximately $80 million (about the same as India’s first Moon mission) when many people in the country do not access to even clean drinking water? However, this could be viewed as the extension of the same old debate of guns versus bread. Today, the guns are replaced by Mars probes. The core argument is that the governments should focus more on poverty reduction than on undertaking such missions. However, such arguments are lopsided, and it is an accepted fact that technological innovations help poverty eradication. More importantly, India’s space program is one of the cheapest programs in the world. India’s present and forecasted economic situation indicates that the country can afford a space exploration program.

Second, are technological challenges so complex that India is being extracautious? The present growth trajectory of ISRO indicates that technological capability should not be a major factor. It would be an extremely challenging mission but definitely not a “mission impossible”. It has to be a gradual process of technology development. The earlier announced date of the year 2020 for a human Moon mission looks a bit overambitious. By present standards India would require at least a few more years.

Third, what is the global scenario? Would India lag behind the rest of the world by not undertaking a human Moon mission? At present there are only three nations that have both the interest and the capabilities to undertake a human mission to the Moon. There has been ongoing debate whether the US should attempt a Moon mission once again. However, the US administration does not look keen. In fact, they are interested in the more challenging task of a human Mars mission. There are unconfirmed reports that Russia would undertake a human mission to the Moon to help revive its space program, which has witnessed a series of failures in the recent past. China’s 2011 white paper on space points out their desire to achieve a human lunar landing. They have not provided any rigid timetable for such a mission, but seem likely to accomplish this in the next one to two decades. The history of space indicates that the US and Russia belong to the first rung of space powers and China is rapidly moving towards joining that club. India belongs to the second rung of space powers, and its core space agenda is the use of these technologies for socioeconomic development. In that respect, a human lunar mission cannot be a priority.

Fourth, what are the geopolitical and geostrategic consequences of a successful human Moon mission? It appears that China believes that landing a man on Moon would be a “big bang” moment for them. Communist China also uses their space achievements to elevate the image of their government internally. Globally, such an act could represent a demonstration of their capabilities that would challenge the US’s technology leadership. For Russia, such success may not be comparable with the Sputnik and Gagarin moments. However, it could help restore some of its lost prestige. Now, the issue is hypothetical, for even if India succeeds with its human Moon landing, still keeping their capabilities in mind, it would likely only happen after the Chinese (and perhaps the Russians) have landed on the Moon, and maybe after the US has landed on Mars. So, India’s success could have more of a symbolic significance on the global stage. Regionally, it could help to increase its prestige and domestically would have higher euphoria than the Pokhran II nuclear tests in 1998. Most importantly, showcasing of their capabilities may help to attract more space commerce.

Finally, the success of India’s first Moon mission, particularly the role in played towards identifying the presence of water on the Moon, has brought laurels to India’s space agency. Naturally, many were looking for ISRO to achieve greater heights by undertaking a human Moon mission. Rakesh Sharma’s visit to space is still remembered fondly and had really played an important role towards increasing the feeling of nationalism.

On the other hand India could stand to benefit more from investing in unmanned missions to Moon. Robotic missions are obliviously less risky and allow a much lengthier stay on the lunar surface.

In a nutshell, a human Moon mission is a financially affordable, technologically feasible, and globally and regionally respectable proposal for India. Definitely, it would involve various challenges, but that is why it would be worth attempting. However, still India has dropped the idea of undertaking such a mission. What could be the reasons behind such a decision? In this regard, the following paragraphs raise some questions and attempt to find answers to them to understand why India appears to have altered its earlier decision to undertake a human Moon mission.

The 21st century is the showcase for “realism”. In this era, states are more self-centered and normally undertake cost-benefit analyses for their actions. Is the Indian decision based on any such analysis? For any such analysis the term “cost” should not be viewed only through an economic prism. The costs could be economical, scientific, political, and strategic.

In present times, it’s not obligatory that various scientific achievements would be viewed in a dramatic sense as they were viewed during the Cold War era. The discovery of the Higgs Boson is not credited to any one country. Today, investments for research in the space area are increasingly done as multilateral ventures and International State Station (ISS) is its best example. India finding water on the Moon was actually an outcome of joint Indo-US experimentation. Hence, it is generally understood that even though various scientific discoveries have a nationalist flavor, the international component of it could not be missed.

Would an Indian reaching the Moon give a boost to the domestic space industry? The answer is yes, but only marginally. In India space is likely to remain a state subject. The industry is expected to play its role mainly from the periphery. Both for strategic and commercial reasons, core systems are likely to be developed by the state, and private industry is expected to play a role towards development of support systems. Regular investments by the state to continue with the a human Moon mission program are unlikely. Naturally, without much scope for repeat orders industry involvement would be doubtful. In fact, the industry would prefer to make investments in programs that offer greater business potential over a longer period of time.

Does dropping the idea of a human Moon program mean India is losing an opportunity to further develop its science and technology base? The answer could be yes, but only partially. Generally, the developments of various new technologies lead to new inventions that are likely to find direct or indirect utility in other fields, too. However, the techniques developed specifically for survival on the Moon would have limited utility in other fields. On the other hand India could stand to benefit more from investing in unmanned missions to Moon. Robotic missions are obliviously less risky and allow a much lengthier stay on the lunar surface in comparison with human missions, permitting far superior data collection and experimentation. Such missions demand a considerable amount of technology development in various fields of robotics, radar networks, communications, material development, and so on. The technologies developed for these purposes could be modified to generate commercial as well as strategic benefits. Also, since India would be undertaking human visits to space (in low earth orbit), the many technologies required for staying in space would as such be developed.

Would a “freeze” of a human Moon mission adversely impact Indian ambitions? The answer is no. The purpose during Apollo era for going to the Moon was political. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy issued his famous challenge to reach the Moon and return safely before the end of the decade. This was essentially to outdo the first human in space accomplishment (the Gagarin moment) by the USSR. However, Cold War era policies are dated in the 21st century. The major focus in the 21st century is energy security and management of natural resources. Ideas like colonizing the Moon are been debated but the human race is still far away from realizing this dream. Also, the exact advantages for colonizing the Moon are yet to become clear. Under these circumstances human visits to the Moon can always wait.

India cannot afford to undertake a “show-off” mission without any good reason.

Does opting out of a human Moon mission bid indicate that India’s space program lacks direction? The answer is probably not. Change in plans and undertaking mid-course corrections should not be always viewed pessimistically. The process of devising any scientific agenda should be dynamic in nature and based on financial calculations as well as social return on investment analysis. Also, it is important for India to have a relook on its space agenda because of certain technological challenges. India’s failure with its cryogenic program has directly or indirectly hampered its various other programs. Allegations by Indian media in regards to the functioning of ISRO and subsequent inquiries by various governmental agencies has indirectly made an impact on the morale of ISRO. Under these circumstances some amount of valuable time has been lost. Also, since Chandrayaan-2, the second Moon mission of ISRO, has been put on hold till 2014 (due to problems with its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV); ISRO has probably thought it prudent to reroute its concentration to the Mars mission. Now, this mission would takeoff in 2013, which otherwise was expected to take off during 2016/18. All this demands ISRO to concentrate more towards its core requirements in coming years. Naturally, more flashy programs like a human Moon mission can always wait.

Has India learned from others’ experiences in the space arena? The answer is they should have. The Apollo program and the recently retired Space Shuttle program of the US have many lessons for all spacefaring nations. The major lesson from the Cold War is that the blind arms race/space race is detrimental to the state’s survival. Socioeconomic and politico-strategic objections should be clearly analysed while developing a space program. It needs to be appreciated that major space programmes are likely to have a lifetime of three to five decades and the states should undertake such programs provided they are sure of their long-term financial potential to sustain such programs. All such cases point towards the importance of advance planning. For a developing state like India, it is important to first convince themselves about the advantages of a human mission over a robotic mission. India cannot afford to undertake a “show-off” mission without any good reason.

China is likely to attempt a human Moon landing. Would India lose face if it not able to match China? It is important for India to understand that just because academic debate revolves around the possibility of a space race between India and China it is less likely to become a reality. This is for the simple reason that China’s space program is much ahead of India’s program in many arenas, and even if India desires, it cannot match them. India should follow its independent space agenda based on its needs. It is important for India not to assume a human Moon landing as a prestige issue. Such events are bound to have limited impact, but the great power status of the country should not be held hostage to any such single event.

It is important for India to understand that just because academic debate revolves around the possibility of a space race between India and China it is less likely to become a reality. India should follow its independent space agenda based on its needs.

Space exploration has emerged as an important factor in characterizing nationalism (particularly in case of Chinese nationalism). Is India failing to contextualize its importance? Is India losing an opportunity by denying its population from seeing an Indian on the Moon? No specific answers to such questions exist. Space exploration has a certain amount of inherent romanticism associated with it and probably, in a limited sense, could even be viewed as an antithesis of war. In the post-1991 era of economic liberalization in India, and with India making rapid progress in nuclear, space, and information technology fields, science and technology is emerging as an instrument to bring transformation. India has an opportunity to project itself as a technological superpower by successfully undertaking a human Moon mission. However, the issue is nationalism and power projection at what expense? The 2004 Athens Olympics was a morale booster for Greece’s pride, but history would still judge Greece more on its economic failures than as a successful Olympics host. Globalization and changes in socioeconomic structures may partly become responsible for making national identities lose their importance in coming years. Thus, there exists the possibility that when India would eventually undertake a human Moon mission the nation by then could have crossed the threshold towards an era of post-nationalism.

In conclusion, it could said that there are a very few compelling reasons for India to undertake a human Moon mission in near future. In the 21st century, it is important to move away from any political trap and understand the context behind such missions correctly. For coming few decades, it would make more sense for India to concentrate more towards developing robot probes, which offer major advantages over any human mission to the Moon.