Commentary | Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go (in Space)?

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With much fanfare, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s trip to the United States came to a close Sept. 30. Modi’s whirlwind tour included a two-day meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, the goal of which was to reinvigorate a relationship that many felt had plateaued.

In a joint Washington Post op-ed, Modi and Obama laid out a far-reaching agenda for the bilateral partnership, and outer space cooperation was mentioned as a potentially transformational component of their relationship, in line with their proposed new direction — chalein saath saath (“forward together we go”).

Beyond catchy slogans, however, are current Indo-U.S. space cooperative initiatives living up to their full potential? Will space help India and the U.S. move forward together for a better world?

India and the U.S. are beginning to show signs of a robust space partnership. As the U.S. State Department outlined on Sept. 30, the two countries are broadening civil space cooperation under the U.S.-Indian Civil Space Joint Working Group; have established a Joint Mars Working Group; are exploring cooperative opportunities for space-based climate change research through a NASA-Indian Space Research Organisation Synthetic Aperture Radar mission (NISAR); are optimizing data sharing through satellite research cooperation; are engaging in a space security dialogue; and are partnering on space-based science.

Perhaps fortuitously, in tandem with Modi’s visit, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan signed two of those agreements — the Joint Mars Working Group and NISAR — Sept. 30 at the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto.

However, despite such indicators of progress, current Indo-U.S. space cooperation is not necessarily representative of the transformative forward vision that Modi and Obama have laid out. As we previously noted, one way to model the Indo-U.S. bilateral space relationship requires a strategic, long-term plan to drive the relationship to new levels.

A Strategic Space Partnership

India and the U.S. must outline a grand, strategic vision for space. This strategy should provide long-term goals with medium- to short-term benchmarks, while holistically engaging the entire space stakeholder community. One way to model a long-term Indo-U.S. space partnership is by establishing a U.S.-India Commercial Space Initiative and a bilateral Space Knowledge Initiative, similar in many ways to what India and the U.S. established on clean energy or agricultural cooperation.

Such initiatives would transcend rigidly delineated government-to-government interactions and build cooperative linkages across all space sectors.

Some of the key Indian partners could include Antrix Corp. (the commercial wing of ISRO), the Chamber of Indian Industries, the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, U.S.-India Business Council, educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology, Indian Institute of Management and Indian Institute of Science. On the U.S. side, partners could include aviation schools and universities associated with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Universities Space Research Association, NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, commercial enterprises such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and the Space Enterprise Institute, among others.

Moreover, India and the U.S. can expand on their current bilateral space initiatives to help deepen the partnership in the short-to-medium term. Building efforts such as the space security dialogue into concrete programs could provide mutual benefit.

As spacefaring nations, India and the U.S. have a vested interest in the sustainability of space. Low Earth and geosynchronous orbit is becoming increasingly congested, debris is proliferating, and there is the threat of potential collision cascading. Enhanced data sharing and augmented cooperation in space situational awareness should be of interest to both capitals. Likewise, deeper cooperation in maritime domain awareness, with the potential expansion into air domain awareness, would be equally useful.

Furthermore, a strategic vision should include concrete proposals that will capture the imagination of citizens in both countries. India’s interest in human spaceflight and NASA’s stated desire to send humans to an asteroid and Mars, in 2025 and 2030, respectively, may provide potential for truly transformational collaboration. Other big-ticket items for collaboration include areas such as space access, in-space maneuvering, space logistics, space-based solar power, a space-based sensor constellation and space infrastructure. Joint action in these areas would help create a larger cutting-edge space workforce. Additionally, the spin-off benefit of employment generation in high-tech areas should provide an economic incentive for both countries.

However, while there is room for growth, support for a transformative space vision must come from the top. Modi and Obama must be willing to drive the space partnership; in essence, they must put concrete action behind their Sept. 30 joint statement.

This is easier said than done.

Indeed, as a prominent observer of South Asia, Sumit Ganguly, has noted, Modi’s prime focus, up to the U.S. visit, has been on domestic and regional issues. His ability to deliver metamorphic foreign policy — and space-based initiatives — ultimately depends on his capacity to generate socioeconomic results at home.

Likewise, Obama currently has to navigate a growingly dysfunctional legislative body, a geopolitical landscape riven with unrest, and a public that is still recovering from recession.

Pursuing a strategic space vision will require a sustained focus from both leaders, even in the face of multiple competing commitments.

Despite legitimate cause for skepticism, there is room to be optimistic. As the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has stated, India and the U.S. are natural partners, with “currents of kinship and commerce, scholarship and science” fastening the two countries together. Space bridges those four areas, providing opportunities for deeper economic, scientific, strategic and diplomatic engagement.

The question is not whether India and the U.S. will collaborate in space, but how far forward together we go — chalein saath saath.

 

Jennifer McArdle is a research associate at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and a fellow in the Center for Revolutionary Scientific Thought in Washington. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and served at India’s National Security Council Secretariat from 2003 to 2007.