Why India’s Mars mission is about more than power and prestige
The fact that India’s first inter-planetary satellite was built by its own homegrown scientists in barely 15 months, at a record-low cost of $73 million, has become a matter of intense pride, and part of Indians’ collective psyche.
It was a can-do, Sputnik-like feeling that defied the usual
lament that defines average Indians who feel let down by daily
governance failures and infrastructure bottlenecks of a
dysfunctional governance system. That same system delivered a
psychological ticket into the wider solar system for Indian
people who crave grand achievements and global recognition for
their scientific human capital.
The widespread joy in India at the launch of the country’s Mars
orbiter, Mangalyaan, should not be mistaken for vanity or
escapism, however. Patriotic Indians are acutely aware of the
rising profile of their country in global economics and
geopolitics, alongside other emerging powers belonging to BRICS
and similar groups. Every milestone in advanced rocket science,
literally a rarefied and sophisticated field that few nations can
master, is a shot in the arm for national self-confidence,
showing that India is headed for global leadership. When the
chips are down, or if there is a national calamity, memories of
the Mars orbiter blazing a trail in the sky will sustain the
faith that the future belongs to India.
Perception of competition with China
Many analysts argue that India is engaged in a space race
specifically with China, and that the former’s Mars orbiter was
spurred on by the failure of China’s Yinghuo-1 mission to Mars in November 2011.
The Indian Space Research Organization’s chief scientist, K.
Radhakrishnan, rejects such comparisons, however, saying: “We
are in competition with ourselves, in the areas we have charted
for ourselves.” For the scientific community, which is
directly involved in high stakes projects such as the Mars
orbiter, it is obvious that they set goals internally and are
determined to achieve them. However, the belief that India is
trying to steal a march over China is widespread.
China’s state-owned media have also echoed this perception, by
reacting with jealousy or wariness to India’s Mars mission. The
Global Times, published in Beijing, tried to reassure nationalistic Chinese readers that
in space technology, their country “has already been in
advance of India” and that China “has no choice” but
to invest more in its own space exploratory abilities “in
front of an India that is striving to catch up with
Yet, unlike in the Cold War era, when the USSR and the US engaged
in a spectacular tit-for-tat space race while remaining
economically and politically estranged from each other, China and
India today have a booming trade relationship and are not engaged
in any outright ideological confrontation. If there is a “new
Cold War” rivalry now, it is more between a whole group of powers
led by Russia and the US.
There are elements of a Cold War mindset when China and India
square off in strategic competition, but it remains embedded
within the liberal framework of economic globalization and
cooperation. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s call for “joint
efforts” in space exploration after India’s Mars orbiter
launch underlines the complexity of this key bilateral
relationship in Asia.
India is mindful that the strides it’s making in space science
can also be a medium for enhancing international cooperation. For
instance, its Moon mission in 2008 won the International
Cooperation Award from the International Lunar Exploration
Working Group for carrying a payload of as many as 20 countries.
As India’s satellite launch capacity expands, it can also offer
friendly countries a platform for joint space exploration and
help to mitigate predictions of galactic war. Through technology,
India can assume international leadership in cutting-edge
dimensions and issues.
Race to be first in Asia
Missions to Mars are treacherous, however. Scientists at the
Indian Space Research Organization point out that 30 out of a
total of 51 Mars missions, from various countries, have ended in
Bets are currently being placed on whether India’s Mangalyaan
(Mars Craft) will succeed in reaching Mars’ orbit and detecting
possible signs of life there in the form of methane gas.
The satellite is projected to reach its destination, 400 million
kilometers away, by September 2014. Asia’s two largest economic
powers, Japan and China, launched their own Mars missions
in 2003 and 2011, respectively, but neither of them reached Mars’
orbit due to technical problems. Regardless of the current
euphoria in the Indian media surrounding the launch, the
scientific verdict on Mangalyaan will only come later. A sobering
reminder comes from India’s first lunar mission, Chandrayaan,
which was designed to explore the moon for two years, but was
declared lost after 312 days due to technical snags.
India is only the sixth power to embark on a mission to Mars. If
it succeeds, India would be the first in Asia to do so, and only
the fourth in the world after the Soviet Union, the US and the
There are obviously military applications to India’s space
program, and India’s longstanding National Satellite System, now
in its third decade, has long been closely linked to its
Integrated Missile Development Program,
which built India’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Today, India can boast of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) named Agni V with a strike range of 5,000 kilometers. This is due in part to the cooperation between the civilian scientific community and the defense industry.
Since the weaponization of space is now in full throttle, with
the Chinese competing hard against Russia and the US, one benefit
for India of projects such as the Mars orbiter mission is that it
demonstrates the country’s long-range military potential. It is
tacitly acknowledged that the civilian space program brings
strategic benefits to the country, as military thinkers say space
will be the arbiter of future wars. The potential dual use of
space technology is why the Chinese media has reacted to India’s
Mars orbiter by reminding the Chinese people of the need to
“construct our comprehensive strategic power.”
Brainpower versus naysayers
As can be expected in a developing country with a free
media, in the run-up to the Mars orbiter launch Indian opinion
makers also considered the opportunity costs of space missions.
Even though the costs of Mangalyaan are revolutionarily low by
global standards and a feather in the cap for India’s famed
‘frugal innovation’ industry, some in India complained about
“wasteful expenditure” on nationalistic ego trips, when
money could have been better spent on economic development
schemes and alleviating poverty.
But the “guns versus butter” argument, which assumes that there
has to be a tradeoff between state spending on military and the
basic needs of citizens, is negated by the concrete benefits that
India’s satellite system has brought to the lives of ordinary
people. From meteorological predictions that have saved thousands
of lives from natural disasters, to broadcasting and
telecommunications, India’s National Satellite System has greatly
helped human development in the country. If India remains poor
and plagued by economic imbalances and inequalities, blaming
greedy space scientists is way off the mark.
Returning to the national psyche, why has the Mars orbiter launch
struck such a chord among all sectors and classes in Indian
society? It’s because India has always viewed its intellectual
and mental faculties as extraordinary, and rocket science is
revered as a key frontier of the human mind. Children in India
learn in school textbooks about the ancient astronomer Aryabhata
(AD 476–550) and his prescient works about the solar system and
models in which the earth turns on its own axis. Especially in
southern India, which produces the vast majority of the
astrophysicists who lead the country’s space research, the
tradition of excelling in mathematics and physics is deeply
ingrained in the culture.
To most Indians, their support for the Mangalyaan mission is not
only about winning the space race for international prestige and
influence, but also about reaffirming the core love in Indian
society for pure and applied science, which is considered the
summit of intellectual achievement and the testing ground for
individual brilliance. The Mars orbiter speaks to the innate
curiosity and rational scientific temper that Indians aspire to.
In short, it’s India’s alter ego in space.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.