Editorial: India Is Ready

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It should surprise no one that India’s space agency is ready and eager to launch its own human spaceflight program. The country has well-developed space capabilities and long ago demonstrated the ability to build sophisticated launch vehicles and satellites.

With a booming economy, a high-tech work force and a burgeoning middle class, India appears to have the resources it needs to fulfill the ambitions of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to launch astronauts into orbit by 2014 and land an Indian national on the Moon by 2020.

That proposal, which was quietly presented to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Oct. 17, seems likely to get strong backing from the government when the budget is set next year. India’s President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is a scientist who previously worked at ISRO, and Singh thought enough of the idea that he urged ISRO Chairman Gopalan Madhavan Nair to present it to a cross section of the Indian scientific community at a meeting Nov. 7 in Bangalore. They unanimously endorsed the proposal.

For more than the past decade, India has made its space program a budget priority. While the largest space agencies around the world were getting flat budgets or enduring budget cuts, ISRO has consistently received double-digit increases.

To be certain, India’s ambitions have roots in the country’s decades-old rivalry with China. In fact, as China moved into final preparations to launch its first astronaut in 2003, India began working on a recoverable space capsule. ISRO intends to validate its re-entry technology in January, when it plans to launch the first of those capsules into orbit, then return it to Earth for recovery after an ocean landing.

A manned spaceflight program marks a very big step for India, which traditionally has kept its space program very focused on practical applications on Earth. ISRO has a wealth of experience building and operating communications, weather and environmental monitoring spacecraft, for example.

Adding an expensive human spaceflight program to ISRO’s portfolio is bound to be controversial despite the strong backing of top government leaders. Some prominent Indians believe the program should stay focused on traditional areas that provide direct benefits to the public.

Others are concerned that despite India’s demonstrated prowess in space, missions to the Moon might be a bit beyond the country’s reach over the next two decades and thus will require international collaboration.

Collaboration, though, is not ISRO’s goal. Current and former ISRO officials said in interviews that the country stands to benefit the most if it develops its human spaceflight program largely with its own resources. India has long-emphasized self sufficiency in space activities; it has spent millions of dollars developing its own rockets, for example, when it would have been far cheaper to purchase foreign launch services.

ISRO recently demonstrated an indigenously developed cryogenic upper stage for its Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle, which to date has utilized Russian-supplied engines. India embarked on this solo development path after U.S. proliferation concerns led Russia to back out of an agreement to provide technical assistance.

India has shown it is ready to take the next step. It is a tangible sign of the country’s growing importance in the world and the government should approve the creation of a human spaceflight program. Though ambitious, it is certainly within India’s reach — perhaps even on the ambitious schedule envisioned by ISRO.

But while India should develop its own technology, the country’s emergence as yet another player in human spaceflight is one more reason why the spacefaring nations of the world should sit down soon and figure out ways to make sure that they minimize duplication of effort.

In a speech in Washington last year, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said his agency planned to provide the superhighway to the Moon and suggested that other nations figure out missions that they could accomplish once they headed down that highway’s off ramps.

With India, China and the United States all setting their sites on the Moon, the result could be the construction of multiple highways to the same place, with little money left over to do anything once explorers begin arriving. Now would be a good time for the spacefaring nations of the world, including Europe and Russia, to sit down and begin exploring whether they might be able to work more closely together to make the common endeavor more worthwhile.