There may be a new Space Race in Asia. By October 2014, India hopes to join the ranks of countries exploring Mars. Mangalyaan, which means “Mars vehicle,” is a probe that successfully launched on November 5, cleared Earth’s orbit on December 1, and will take just over ten months to reach its destination 423 million miles away.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced plans for the mission in August 2012, just a few months after China’s attempt to send an orbiter to Mars failed. The timing of his announcement has raised questions of whether or not a new Space Race is emerging in Asia. James Moltz, an expert in the politics of space, believes that “there is an ongoing race for space-related power and prestige currently in Asia, although few officials will admit it. India is clearly concerned about China’s recent rise in space prestige and wants to minimize that damage.” Despite questions of a Space Race 2.0, Koppillil Radhakrishnan, head of the Indian Space Research Organization, has said, “We are only in a race with ourselves to excel in this area.”
There are several key differences between China’s and India’s space programs. According to Moltz, India “cannot expect to match China mission for mission. But it can develop a solid technical competency in space activities that will help its economy, military, and scientific potential.” For example, China has sent its first female astronaut into space and hopes to establish a manned space station. According to Mayank N. Vahia of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India has focused less on sending astronauts into space and has instead invested in less costly missions that are driven more by technological development for the aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors.
Yet there is a second concern with India’s space program: Many question whether or not a country should be investing in interplanetary travel when nearly 30 percent of its citizens are living below the poverty line. The millions of rupees spent on spacecraft might be better directed toward education or healthcare. Bharath Gopalaswamy, Deputy Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council has said: “India has its own ambitions. Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any ambitions. That’s not the way we think about ourselves, right?”
Yet many of the impoverished children supposedly hurt by space travel expenditures actually take pride in their country’s strides forward and hope to become astronauts themselves. India’s space agency has recently partnered with schools in remote areas to teach students about space and technology in order to raise a new generation of scientists.
Additionally, many argue that the space program can lead to technological developments that will ultimately benefit the nation. Though some byproducts of NASA’s work have been Velcro, Tang, and Tempur Pedic mattresses, India is hoping to use the technology developed from space travel to reach people at home. For example, the satellites that India has launched in recent years have helped track weather patterns to mitigate the damage of natural disasters, and scientists ultimately hope to enable doctors to remotely serve patients in rural areas, and provide education via satellite. Ultimately, the investment in travel to Mars will cause a “trickle down” of technology that can benefit the entire economy.
Still, Indian officials’ attempts to swiftly dismiss criticism about their aims for flying to Mars only raise more questions about these motives. Orbiting around or landing on Mars carries a level of international prestige, since so few countries have been able to reach the distant planet. Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation believes, “You cannot make a claim about having moved beyond mid-level status unless you have a real space program.”
And as the Washington Post reported, “Today, that means sending a mission to Mars.”