Geopolitics

Race for the Final Frontiers: Is India Lagging Behind China?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 11 Mar , 2016

In an report submitted by the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forests last year,it was observed that delays in the implementation of Indian space projects including the ambitious human space flight programme had resulted in India lagging behind its neighbour China in many of the critical areas of space exploration. As it is, space analysts have been quick to point out India’s failure to catch up with China especially in the crucial area of human space exploration.

… owing to a variety of factors including historical developments, radical differences in the political philosophy and administrative set up of the two countries and militaristic ambitions of this Asian communist giant, China could steal a march over India in the area of space exploration.

On another front, the Parliamentary Panel had censured the Indian Space Department for not putting in place a national strategy to enhance Industry participation in the Indianspace programme. However, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has now rolled out a well conceived action plan to involve the Indian industries in a big way with a view to give quickening impetus to the pace of Indian space programme. The idea is to create dedicated space corridors where Indian industrial consortiums will build and deliver satellites and launch vehicles in a ready to use condition on a routine basis. This would help ISRO concentrate more on the frontier areas of research to help boost India’s leadership position in space exploration.

Of course, owing to a variety of factors including historical developments, radical differences in the political philosophy and administrative set up of the two countries and militaristic ambitions of this Asian communist giant, China could steal a march over India in the area of space exploration. For instance,for more than five years now, the ruling dispensation in New Delhi has been dithering over giving clearance to the ambitious national human space flight programme. The current political dispensation in New Delhi led by Narendra Modi seems to show no interest in giving green signal to the Indian human space flight programme which was originally planned to be launched by the end of this decade. With this nationally important project yet to be cleared by the Indian Government, one is not sure as to when the Indian human space mission will take off.

A successful implementation of the human space flight mission would not only help reinforce India’s space leadership position but also contribute to the quantum leap in the industrial and technological capability of the country with a clear cut, positive and long term impact on the overall national growth. Of course, ISRO is fully well capable of building up the technological expertise good enough for realizing Indian human space flight mission. But then the massive fund requirement projected for the Indian manned flight appears to be a causative factor for the indifference shown by the Indian Government.On the other hand, Chinese space programme has never suffered for want of funds or political commitment.

The end goal of Chinese rendezvous and docking exercise—forming part of its rapidly progressing human space flight mission– is the setting up of a permanently manned station early next decade.

Meanwhile, ISRO is engaged in the pre- project phase of the human space flight programme with particular focus on developing some of the key technological elements for the realization of the space flight mission.The Indian human space flight programme envisages the launch of two or three crew members on-board a home-grown spaceship to the near earth orbit followed by the safe return to earth. It is planned to use the high performance GSLV-MKIII vehicle, whose maiden flight is expected to take place by the end of this year, for the proposed Indian manned space mission.

According to Chinese media reports, China has substantially upgraded the technology needed for carrying out docking between vessels in outer space with the development of an “eye” guidance system that will make the procedure safer and more efficient. As it is, “Good eyesight” is critical for one spacecraft chasing another for hundreds of thousands of kms to achieve a perfect rendezvous and docking.The new guidance system will be used for China’s second orbiting space lab The Tiangong-2 set for launch sometime this year. This innovative technology would also be used for China’s Chang’e-5 sample return mission to moon lined up for launch in 2017.

The end goal of Chinese rendezvous and docking exercise—forming part of its rapidly progressing human space flight mission– is the setting up of a permanently manned station early next decade. In a manned space mission accomplished in 2013, three Chinese astronauts had spent a total of 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space lab Tiangong-1.Significantly, the Chinese orbital complex will become operational at about the same time as the International Space Station (ISS) is expected to shut down its operations. Though the Chinese orbital station will be much smaller than ISS, it would nonetheless provide China with the necessary level of expertise to put in place a larger space station with a longer lifespan. An autonomous orbital complex could also help China,besides furthering space science research,bolster space war efforts by serving as a strategic outpost in outer space.

The Indian space programme was for long dependent on a solitary launch vehicle in the form of the four stage PSLV…

On its part, US has alleged that China was pursuing activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from accessing space during the hours of crisis. And as space commentators put it, in the eventof US and its partners in the ISS project failing to come up with a follow on project, China would have permanent human presence in space. ”Space leadership is highly symbolic of national capabilities and international influence and a decline in space leadership will be seen as a symbolic of relative decline in the US power and influence,” says Scott Pace, a former functionary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA)of USA.

The Indian space programme was for long dependent on a solitary launch vehicle in the form of the four stage PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) described as the trusted Indian space workhorse . Of course, now the three stage cryogenic fuel driven Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) is edging closer to enter service to expand the scope of Indian space launch service. ISRO is also hopeful of strengthening Indian space lift off power with the operationalization of high performance GSLV-MKIII in the near future.

But then China boasts of a range of launch vehicles of varying capability under is Long March family. Incidentally, both India and China are now busy marketing the services of their launch vehicles for the in-orbit delivery of the satellite payloads of international customers on commercial terms.

Right since its inception, the Chinese space venture did enjoy many distinctive advantage over the Indian space programme. It was ably guided by Hsue ShenTsein, a US trained aerospace engineer with a sound background in rocketry. On the top of this,Russians made available vital elements of missile technology to China which was imaginatively exploited by China to build civilian space vehicles. For a strategic missile and a satellite launch vehicle have many technological elements in common. And with the Chinese defence set up being closely involved with the space activities, the expertise available at various institutions and labs of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were fully well exploited to give a quickening impetus to the Chinese space programme.In distinct contrast, ISRO cannot not openly team up with the defence establishment of the country for accessing its resources and expertise.

…the fast moving Chinese space programme continues to remain insulated under the cover of so called “bamboo curtain”. Moreover, Indian space scientists are required to do a lot of paper work to get the required funds sanctioned…

On the other hand, India’s essentially peace oriented space programme had to start virtually from scratch without any outside assistance. Moreover, it did not get the kind of funding and autonomy that was available to the Chinese space venture. Being a fully civilian enterprise operating in a democratic set up, the Indian space program is invariably subject to parliamentary scrutiny and public criticism. On the other hand, far from transparent Chinese space programme with its pronounced militaristic ambitions was free to pursue its goals without being subject to public scrutiny and criticism.

Clearly and apparently, the fast moving Chinese space programme continues to remain insulated under the cover of so called “bamboo curtain”. Moreover, Indian space scientists are required to do a lot of paper work to get the required funds sanctioned from the ruling dispensation in New Delhi. This exercise results in the diffusion and dilution of the scientific talent.

However, the biggest consolation for India is that it has emerged as the first Asian country to successfully accomplish a mission to the Red Planet in the very first attempt. The Indian Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mangalyaan launched in Nov.2013 by means of the reliable space work-horse PSLV(Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle)successfully entered the orbit around the Mars in Sept.2014 and created a sort of space record. Incidentally, MOM has the distinction of being the first Mars probe to enter the orbit around the Red Planet in the very first attempt. As it is, China’s Mars probe Yinghuo-1, a micro satellite launched as part of the Russian Phobos Grunt mission had come cropper in 2011 along with the mother craft. Of course, China has reiterated its decision to pursue mission to the Red Planet.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Radhakrishna Rao

Strategic analyst specializing in aeronautics, defence, space technology and international security.

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