Aakar Patel | Will India get left behind as world speeds up space race?

The government told Parliament this month the Indian Space Research Organisation will conduct its first abort demonstration test on India’s ambitious astronaut mission before December 31. It’s hoped India’s first uncrewed mission will be launch by 2023’s end, as part of a `9,023- crore project.

The Gaganyaan mission is one of Isro’s most challenging undertakings and four Indian Air Force officers, whose names remain confidential, are training for the mission and working with Russia’s Roscosmos.

India is among only a dozen nations that have put an object in orbit. We first did this 40 years ago, and this is something the world’s richest man hasn’t been able to do though his space company is two decades old. The reason so few succeeded is that orbit is hard. Things stay in orbit only if they achieve a speed horizontal to the earth of 27,000 kmph. If this “escape velocity” isn’t achieved, the object falls back. The restrictions physics imposes on rocket design is what makes this difficult: over 90 per cent of a rocket’s weight is just fuel.

Advances in rocket technology happened broadly in two phases. The first was in the 1950s and 1960s. The Russians put the first object in orbit, the first living thing (a dog) and satellite, the first man in orbit and the first spacewalk. The Americans followed. Within a decade, the world went from having no satellites to humans on the moon.

But after that, the high costs, boredom from the American public and the failure of the Soviet moon rocket ended the energetic race. After 1972 the US went from having a capacity to put humans on the moon (deep space) to limited capacity in lower earth orbit, just a few hundred km. After the Space Shuttle programme ended a decade ago, America had no ability to put humans even in low earth orbit.

Today that capacity exists only with Russia using its very old rocket, China and SpaceX. China first put humans in orbit around two decades ago and has a manned space station orbiting 400 km above the earth, something only the United States and Russia have done, before a group of nations (that doesn’t include India) developed the International Space Station.

Isro has plans to put humans in orbit in the next few years. This won’t be easy. The rocket for this failed earlier this month when its third stage didn’t fire. Even so, India has done very well, though its capacity is limited by funding and access to technology. Our rocket boosters are powered by an ancient engine first designed by France and using low-efficiency, toxic fuels called “hypergols”. We have some experience in more efficient cryogenic or supercooled fuels (that failed third stage was cryogenic) running on an indigenous engine, but India’s capacity largely isn’t at the level of more advanced countries and companies. Isro has no ability to reuse rockets, raising costs.

In the past few years, a new space race has begun. It’s being driven by private companies and China. The motivations are different. America wants a base on the moon, there are plans to colonise Mars (the gigantic second stage of the rocket for this was test-flown in Texas this year). To get a sense of its scale, consider it will take 150 tons to Mars, while Isro’s Mangalyaan orbiter sent to Mars in 2013 weighed 15 kg. There are plans to mine asteroids for rare minerals and bring them to earth, to occupy Mars permanently and change its climate to make it more earth-like. That’s the scale of the ambition, and it’s being pursued as you read this.

What this means is that a vast technological gap is opening up and will continue to open up between those doing this — some private firms, the US and China — and the rest of the world. This gap won’t be limited to the resources their capacity gives them access to. It will also empower them with new technologies they will develop in the next decade as they do things that nobody else is doing or can do.

The spinoff tech from the first space race and tens of billions of dollars put into innovation six decades ago produced the personal computer, the mouse, Lasik, artificial limbs, freeze-dried food, water purification and GPS. More breakthroughs of this magnitude will come, first to those who develop them and perhaps then for wider commercial use later. We will see these before the decade’s close.

We must consider what colonies of humans, of many nationalities, on another planet may mean for earth. The idea of nation-states and borders will appear to be a little silly when our species is colonising the solar system. It is possible enormous change will sweep over the world when breakthroughs at a planetary level come, and they will not be easy to predict or stop.

Perhaps all of this won’t happen for some reason and the space race will end or pause. As we have seen, innovation in space technology collapsed immediately after the moon landings. America lost its capacity to land men on the moon and still does not have it. Something could hinder or pause the current race as well. But it’s hard to think what this might be: there is considerable progress and interest already and the billionaires funding it aren’t only eyeing profits as they push mankind out into the stars.

It appears India will be among the nations consigned to being among the watchers and not participants in this key phase. We must consider the implications and what that means for us in a future that we are rapidly hurtling into.

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