September 7 was to be a triumphant day as India landed its first mission on the Moon, joining a global elite of extraterrestrial heavyweights. But bleary-eyed Indians, some up all night and others just awakening, watched in dismay as the Indian Space Research Organisation lost contact with Chandrayaan-2’s landing vehicle just a mile from the Moon’s surface.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had championed the mission, reacted quickly. In a cathartic televised address, he urged his compatriots to rally behind India’s space ambitions. And, switching briefly to English from his usual Hindi, reminded other nations not to underestimate them.
“India is one of the top space powers in the world,” he declared. “In our glorious history we may have faced moments that could have slowed us, but never crushed us. This is the reason our civilisation stands tall.”
His most important foreign audience was north of the Himalayas. India’s space programme, long framed around developmental goals like improving meteorological and telecommunications technology, has in recent years increasingly sought to match China’s mounting extraterrestrial prowess.
China earlier this year stole ahead of India with its own lunar mission, in January landing the Chang’e-4 probe on the previously unexplored far side of the Moon. India’s high-profile show of force when it launched an anti-satellite missile in March came more than a decade after China’s first test. But India scored a victory when in 2014 it became the first Asian nation to send an orbiter to Mars — a feat now commemorated on the Rs2,000 bank note. China’s first mission is due in 2020.
The only Indian astronaut ever to go to space, Rakesh Sharma, went as part of a Soviet mission in 1984. Analysts say that lack of manned space travel is in part because India’s space programme, started in the 1960s, largely eschewed the space-race logic that fuelled extraterrestrial endeavours before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Instead it made a name for being cost-effective — the India Mars mission’s cost of around $74m was roughly a 10th of the US’s own Mars orbiter — and for serving important domestic needs. For example, it helped develop technology to forecast crop quality and alert local authorities to cyclones. This has delivered real benefits in helping to evacuate risk areas ahead of potential natural disasters.
India “has its own brand in terms of space”, said Bharath Gopalaswamy, a security analyst who is writing a book about India’s space programme, referring to its developmental focus. But Mr Gopalaswamy said that the focus of the India space programme had shifted over time: “First you fill your domestic needs, then you defend yourself . . . There is a very strong security component in the space system that did not exist, like, 10 years ago.”
This shift to a greater focus on defence purposes is in part because of China, which sent its first manned mission to space in 2003 and sparked alarm with its 2007 anti-satellite missile test. China has also partnered with other Asian countries to assist their own space projects, creating concern about perceived Chinese encroachment in India’s backyard echoing unease about Belt and Road infrastructure projects.
“China has used space as part of their diplomacy in a much more effective fashion,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi. “We are slow and we have a lot of catching up to do.”
Most alarming for India is China’s celestial partnership with Pakistan. China last year launched two satellites for India’s rival, one Chinese-made craft to monitor the Belt and Road region and another Pakistani-made one. China has additionally launched a satellite for Sri Lanka, and worked with other countries around Asia on their space programmes.
The prospect that India’s two main strategic antagonists would join forces in developing extraterrestrial capabilities prompted India to accelerate the military aspect of its own programme and culminated in this year’s much publicised missile test, said Ajey Lele, a former officer in the Indian Air Force and senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“India is a nuclear-weapon state, and its adversaries are nuclear-weapon states. India is sharing borders with these adversaries,” Mr Lele said, referring to Pakistan and China. “It’s in India’s interest to remain prepared for any sort of eventuality . . . India’s military preparedness is going to depend on space in years to come.”
India has also responded with space diplomacy of its own. Mr Modi last month inaugurated an Indian space station in Bhutan while on a visit, and in 2017 launched a “South Asia Satellite” for use by other south Asian countries excluding Pakistan. India has already partnered with Japan for a future Moon mission.
In the meantime, hope is not lost for India’s Chandrayaan-2 Moon mission. Scientists tracked down the landing vehicle a day after it went missing and are trying to re-establish contact. The vehicle is intact but lopsided, according to media reports, but the likelihood that communications can be re-established is fast diminishing.
“This is not the end of it,” said Ms Rajagopalan. “But as the days proceed it becomes less probable.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Rodrigues