The Hidden Controversy Behind India’s Historic Launch

India is on its way to making history after it successfully launched the Chandrayaan-2 rocket on Monday. Although a source of national pride, India’s space program has become somewhat controversial in the eyes of the rest of the world, signaling to some the beginning of a modern space race.

11 years ago, India launched its Chandrayaan-1 rocket. This mission, along with being India’s maiden voyage to the moon, also made the groundbreaking discovery of hidden water deposits located along the lunar poles. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) hopes to follow in the footsteps of its initial success with Chandrayaan-2, which will further explore water deposits located on the moon’s south pole. Despite previously being forced to cancel 56 minutes before launch due to a leak in the cryogenic engine, the Chandrayaan-2 rocket blasted its way into space on Monday without a hitch. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) commended the ISRO on its efforts tweeting, “We're proud to support your mission comms using our Deep Space Network and look forward to what you learn about the lunar South pole.” Unlike NASA’s Apollo missions, where Saturn V rockets were propelled directly towards the moon, Chandrayaan-2 will travel for the considerably lengthier amount of time of two months using Earth’s gravitational field as a slingshot in order to preserve fuel. After arriving in the moon’s orbit, a lander named Vikram, a nod to Indian space program pioneer Vikram Sarabhai, will separate from the main orbitor and land on the surface of the moon’s south pole. Upon landing, a robotic rover will then detach from the lander and spend the next two Earth weeks collecting geological samples while the main orbitor spends the next year mapping the moon’s surface and studying its atmosphere.

If the mission is successful, India will not only make headway in researching previously unexplored regions of the lunar surface but it will also become just the fourth nation behind the former Soviet Union, China, and the US to make a soft landing on the moon’s surface. This is emblematic of Prime Minister Nerandra Modi’s ambitious goal to establish India as a global superpower. Modi pledged during last year’s Independence Day speech to send Indian astronauts to outer space by 2022. In addition to this, the ISRO announced in June that it plans to set up an independent space station by 2030 and recently made arrangements with Russia to train its astronauts for deep space travel. According to Mark Whittington, the author of multiple space-exploration studies, “India has started to make decisions that will make that country a major space power.” He emphasized that establishing a “vigorous space program” is a vital aspect in the process of becoming a “major player on the world stage.” 

India’s relatively recent reinvigoration of its space program follows on the heels of rapid developments in China’s, the United States’, and Russia’s space programs. China over the last few decades has invested billions of dollars in its space program, which all paid off in January when it became the first country to land a rover on the far side of the moon. Furthermore, it is in the process of planning a second mission, which is scheduled to take place sometime next year, and is currently building its own independent space station. Similarly, NASA has committed itself to returning American astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024 while Russia has announced plans to send tourists to space within the next 2 years. In the midst of this renaissance of space travel, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs claims that India has "no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space"; however, recent developments seem to say otherwise. In an effort to expand its legitimacy on the international level, in 2014, India became the first Asian nation to reach Mars, and in 2017, it launched 104 satellites in one mission. Yet despite condemning the idea of “an arms race in outer space,” earlier this year, in a show of military strength, India shot down one of its moving satellites, becoming one of only four countries capable of doing so. Its weaponization of space flight technology has drawn criticism from much of the world, especially NASA, which has cited that the debris created by the destroyed satellite “ends up being there for a long time. If we wreck space, we're not getting it back.” Satish Dua, the former chief of integrated defence staff of the Indian army, offered a defense for India’s actions stating that "India has to be fully equipped for war — whether it is subsurface, surface, air or space warfare." 

Besides drawing criticism for engaging in and therefore stimulating the escalating global space race, critics have also knocked India’s burgeoning space program for diverting money from more pressing matters such as poverty and corruption in order to boost Prime Minister Modi’s popularity. In response to millions of dollars being allocated for space exploration, Vikram Sarabhai, for whom the Chandrayaan-2 rover is named after, said that “to play a meaningful role nationally and in the community of nations,” India needs to apply “advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.” However, the Indian government has defended itself by drawing on the fact that India has the most cost-effective space program in the world. India’s Mars satellite, Mangalyaan, cost 72 million USD, less than the budget for Hollywood’s thriller, “Gravity,” and much less than NASA’s Mars craft, Maven, which cost 670 million USD and the Curiosity rover, which cost around 2 billion USD. Furthermore, at 141 million USD, the budget for India’s current lunar mission pales in comparison to the 25 billion USD allocated for the Apollo program, which placed the first humans on the moon. 

Whether part of an international space race or simply another publicity stunt, India’s rapidly growing space program has undoubtedly become a source of national pride. Prime Minister Modi tweeted after the launch, “Indian at heart, Indian in spirit!” This statement rings true with much of the nation mobilizing in support of the mission. In anticipation of the initial launch, which was cancelled at the last minute, Indian school children sent good luck messages to the ISRO via YouTube, newsreels were broadcasting headlines reading “India’s Greatest Space Adventure,” and famous V.I.P.’s gathered along the remote coastal launch site not far from Chennai to witness the historic event. 

The Chandrayaan-2 rocket launch has put India on the path to becoming a global competitor in space; however, Prime Minister Modi must maintain his current cost-efficient mission policy and must be wary of further anti-satellite military testing if he is to continue to win over the support of the Indian people and the major governments of the world. 

Photo Credit: Firstpost