The Atlantic Council: India Goes to Mars: Implications for International Space Policy

October 29, 2013

China and India are Set for Space but Leave the Competition on Earth


John Logsdon, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University


Dean Cheng, Senior Research Fellow, Heritage Foundation

John B. Sheldon, Principal and Senior Consultant, The Torridon Group LLC

Bharath Gopalaswamy, Deputy Director of South Asia Center, Atlantic Council

On October 29 the Atlantic Council hosted a panel of experts to discuss India and China’s increasingly capable space programs. Their discussion focused on detailing the different economic factors that drive each country’s program, what their near-term objectives are, and the potential for each program to collaborate on future international missions.

From a Western perspective it is easy to look at the Indian and Chinese programs and think of the Space Race that took place between the U.S. and Soviet Union, in which each country was rapidly developing similar capacities in order to out perform the other. Each speaker however worked to refute this perception. Mr.Gopalaswamy pointed out that “race” implies linier growth, in which each programs builds on the other’s progress to continually one up the other. You don’t see that type of growth or attitude amongst Asian programs. Mr.Sheldon assured the audience that competition and the desire for prestige is present in each program, however, they are not driving factors. Each country’s program has a different aim and focus. Though they are studying the same solar system, each program is inherently different from the other, driven by different purposes, goals, and perspectives.

In China a strong space program is seen as essential for any country to be considered a world power. Mr.Cheng explained that many Chinese officials view a strong space program as an indicator of a nation’s prestige, sophistication, and strength. It shows economic and diplomatic might, in that the country can access and afford necessary rare materials, and that it also posses advanced scientific and manufacturing capabilities. It also demonstrates that the country possesses accurate and sophisticated military technologies. So far, China has been very deliberate in focusing its program on manned space missions by launching the Chinese Space Station (CSS) and providing an alternative to the Western lead ISS. Mr.Cheng pointed out that China is already using its space program to strengthen diplomatic ties in the region by pursuing joint space-partnerships with less developed space powers such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Thailand. A recent invitation from China to shuttle astronauts and experiments from various countries in the region to the CSS was cited as evidence of China using its program to forge closer diplomatic bonds. The fact that Pakistan quickly accepted the invitation is a sign that this could be an effective strategy going forward.

India’s program, though older than China’s, has developed at a more gradual rate and largely concentrated on different areas. Mr. Gopalaswamy explained that the country’s poor infrastructure and acute poverty have kept India’s space program primarily focused on projects that directly benefit the public- such as India’s telemedicine and communication networks. However, as the country experienced rapid economic growth in the early 2000’s its space policy started shifting to become increasingly focused on space science and exploration. In 2006 the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) released a program roadmap that included plans for a lunar probe launched in 2008, a Mars probe that is scheduled to launch on Nov. 5 this year, and a mission to Venus in 2015. This shift in the program’s focus and particularly the upcoming mission to Mars are significant because they fall very much in line with NASA and the West’s future plans of sending a manned mission to Mars. Buoyed somewhat by the failure of Russia’s Fobos-Grunt mission, India will have the opportunity to play a significant role in any future NASA or ESA missions that are headed for Mars.

With increasingly capable programs, India, China, and other Asian countries are poised to increase the amount of knowledge we gleam from space study. Though the Chinese and Indian programs still have significant work to due, India has yet to successfully one of its own satellites in geosynchronous orbit while China has yet to carry out a successful docking mission, they are making steady progress. Not being motivated by geo-political competition, each program is goals that directly benefit their own country. As their space programs continue to develop and collaborate with other programs the knowledge gained will provide economic, scientific, and security benefits to the country’s citizens and the world.

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30. October 2013 by Will Houstoun
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