[Welcome to part two of the blog… here’s part one in case you missed it]
Part B: Geopolitics, Space Policy and National Pride
More than 5000 people were attending the launch event at Shriharikota. The Chandrayaan-3 standing tall and strong onboard the GSLV Mk III (AKA: India’s Fat Boy) represented millions of hearts standing strong, filled with love and pride. I remember watching the launch live on TV and wondering if all the other hearts around the country were pounding with excitement like mine did. The Chandrayaan-3 was going to make an incredible impact on the global space race, one that we all anticipated, but couldn't possibly comprehend.
The Vikram Lander, named after Vikram Sarabhai, one of the core members behind birth of ISRO, previously known as INCOSPAR, was going to attempt a soft landing on the Lunar South Pole 40 days later. What unfolded that day, created history. Many records were set, many firsts were achieved, but one fact crucial to my perspective is the 8 million live viewers on YouTube alone. This is YouTube’s highest ever viewer count on a live stream. Why is this fact crucial? It’s an indicator of one of the major driving forces for a nation’s space program. Allow me to explain that.
Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s vision was to apply space technology for socio-economic welfare of India. The space-for-earth applications (discussed in Part-1) would greatly benefit India during her crucial developmental years. This led to India launching a space program six decades back. India however, maintained a quiet, non-competitive approach to space. ISRO developed dependable, cost-effective launch vehicles, and state-of-the-art satellite manufacturing facilities. We have been using space technology for over four decades in various domains like agriculture, disaster management, communications and more.
With India’s socio-economic development in mind, the government and ISRO didn’t chase after the global space race. However, things have changed now. Space being a ‘strategic technology’ domain has a direct impact on the geopolitical position and power of a country. The global space market is up for grabs and capacity building is the only way to keep alive in the race. Demonstrating that capacity and technology is one way to gain confidence in your technology. India’s PSLV is called a workhorse for that very reason, that it is dependable.
The spice of geopolitics adds another layer to this. The technology demonstrations also become political statements. Think about it, how much money can a country invest in a space program? The benefits of space technology do make a strong case, especially when you bring in the idea of militarisation of space! That attracts a lot of funding from national budgets. But one cannot possibly justify several Billion Dollars of budgets for a space program.
National pride thus plays an important role here. Which brings me to the YouTube live viewers count. Public perception of space can be influenced, public support can be gathered if the citizens are filled with pride. Justifying budgets becomes easier. Important to note, politicians are happier and won’t miss out on a chance to promote their government’s achievements. National politics isn’t divorced from geopolitics. Also, there’s pride in saying that the world looks at India differently since the Chandrayaan landing! In fact, if ISRO changes the employment environment and methods while matching a decent global standard, they can possibly counter the brain-drain happening out of India’s talent pool.
With that being said, I believe that science, curiosity, the sheer human will, the desperate and anxiety inflicting need to find our place in the universe, does fuel a lot of our space efforts - national pride though is another major ingredient that allows pursuit of these aspirations.
Every country with a major space program has their unique image now. India is the silent wolf with immense potential that nobody saw coming. And we’re affordable! We’re known for comparing cost of spacecrafts to cost of auto-rickshaw rides. The Japanese chase interesting and technically challenging projects, like mining asteroids. The ESA is carefree towards the space race and focuses on the science of space and space-for-earth applications; solving earth problems through space. And NASA, well, is known for their budgets and pursuing the most challenging and advanced missions. They have officially entered interstellar space through the Voyager crafts. (Imagine the national pride in that. In fact, they turned it into a global movement - humanity’s most noble aspirations!)
Space is the future, and if you’re not part of it now, when the technology is being developed, you will pay the price. The Indian government is aware of this fact and thus, in 2020 they unlocked the space sector for private players. We know that industry participation is key to cater to the global multi-billion-dollar industry. Indian start-ups have a long way to go, but the new India Space Policy, 2023 has set an interesting path and vision for them to reap full benefits of the Indian ecosystem and ISRO’s six decades of efforts.
India is one of the few countries among the G77 to have launch capacity and dependable competence in space technology, which opens various opportunities for it to become the preferred partner for other G77 countries that cannot run a full-fledged space program. This opportunity is available to non-government entities as well; they could very well dominate the Global South Space Industry.
International collaboration has been quite a positive transition from the initial space race. Which will be the topic for our next discussion! Stay tuned to read about the Artemis Accords and various other international collaborations around the world,