Editorial | Making Their Mark in Space

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China’s successful landing of a rover on the Moon and India’s launch of a probe to orbit Mars are reminders not only of the growing technical capabilities of both nations but also of the depth and breadth of space exploration’s appeal.

Neither achievement comes as a surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention: India and China have long had robust space programs for practical and scientific applications. India launched its first lunar orbiter in 2008, while China, in addition to becoming the third country to independently send people into space and back in 2003, put spacecraft into lunar orbit in 2007 and 2010.

The trickiest part of India’s Mangalyaan mission — insertion into Mars orbit — is still eight months away, but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) nonetheless deserves congratulations for its accomplishment to date. Getting a probe beyond the clutches of Earth’s gravity is no small feat, as several Earth-orbit-departure failures over the years will attest.

China’s Chang’e-3 mission, meanwhile, was the first soft lunar landing by any country in 37 years — the former Soviet Union last accomplished the feat in 1976 with a robotic mission that returned lunar soil samples to Earth. The Chinese lander included a 140-kilogram rover dubbed Yutu, which is designed for three months of operations on the surface. China is now just the third country to carry out a soft landing on another celestial body.

China — contrary to what many people seem to think these days — is not made of money, and neither is India, yet both see fit to expend considerable resources on missions like Mangalyaan and Chang’e-3. A thirst for scientific knowledge is one driver, but clearly leaders in Beijing and New Delhi also put substantial stock in the intangible benefits of space exploration. These include not only stoking national pride and demonstrating technological prowess but also satisfying an innate human urge to see what lies beyond the next horizon.

Their achievements to date, along with their future ambitions — China appears to be planning a lunar sample return mission, for example — raise obvious questions about the role China and India could play in international cooperative space endeavors. Both have done bilateral missions, but nothing of the scale of, say, the NASA-led Cassini probe to Saturn or the European Space Agency-led Rosetta comet rendezvous mission. And of course, neither has a role in the mother of all cooperative space endeavors: the international space station.

One of the biggest barriers China and India face to broader global cooperation is of course the United States, which has long had differences with both over such issues as weapons proliferation and nuclear activities. China’s growing space capability, while intriguing, is a source of great concern in the Pentagon, the White House and on Capitol Hill. China’s 2007 anti-satellite test reinforced the worst U.S. suspicions about its intentions in space, and Congress has gone so far as to pass measures effectively barring NASA from doing business with Chinese organizations.

The good news is that the United States and India seem to be inching toward closer space ties under a decade-old diplomatic initiative known as the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter carried NASA- and ESA-supplied instruments, for example. 

Even more promising, even if it does not necessarily fall under the space exploration heading, NASA and ISRO are studying a joint mission that would fulfill some of the key scientific objectives of the U.S. space agency’s proposed Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) environmental satellite. The U.S. National Research Council in 2007 identified DESDynI as a top Earth science priority, but budget pressures have confined the mission to the drawing board. 

Some scientists might not necessarily favor the joint mission because it does not meet all of their objectives, and U.S. industry likely would object to tentative plans to use an Indian-supplied sensor, spacecraft and launcher. But if the alternative entails waiting and hoping that DESDynI funding will someday materialize, the case for the joint mission looks compelling.

While working with China is far more problematic, particularly for the United States, it offers greater possibilities because of the size of China’s economy and the fact that it has an active human spaceflight program. Chinese space officials for the past several years have publicly expressed a desire to engage with others countries in space activity.  

Some European officials, including ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, have expressed openness to the idea, but any specific initiative — such as Chinese participation in the space station — likely would face stiff resistance in the United States. But there is precedent — some see the 1976 U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission as a possible model for engagement with Beijing.

There is widespread agreement among spacefaring nations that any future undertaking on the scale of the space station will of necessity be a multilateral effort. The successful Chang’e-3 landing is the latest demonstration of what China can bring to that table. It should provide an incentive for other members of the loosely affiliated international space community, the United States in particular, to figure out a way to bring China into the fold.