Saturday, October 15, 2005

Sinic Space

China's launch of its second manned space craft this week demonstrated a sense of national purpose and pride in recent years. "Shen-zhou VI" represents the long dream of Chinese planners to equal the West in space technology. China launched its first space satellite in 1970. India did so in 1974 when it launched "Aryabhatta". China and India were the first countries in the developing world to have a space program where both successfully launched a series of unmanned satellites. And yet, China has outpaced India in recent years. China is the third country after Russia and the United States to catapult a man into outer space.

China launched its first manned space flight in 2003 when Yang Li Wei, a former fighter pilot, became the world's first "Yu Hang Yuan" - i.e. Chinese astronaut. The United States faced the Columbia shuttle disaster that year. China launched its second manned space flight this month and hopes to launch an unmanned mission to the Moon in 2007. This is timed to precede the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The China National Space Administration hopes to build a space station thereafter. National pride and international prestige are motivating factors. China intends to showcase that it has come of age and will be a space super power. The tacit objective is to challenge American supremacy in space, leverage its space program for defence purposes and to perhaps invest in anti-satellite lasers and satellite-based navigational systems.

Let us not be entirely carried away. Shen-zhou VI is only a modified version of Russia's Soyuz space craft. There is less innovation and scientific research in the Chinese space program. But it is still impressive. Indians might argue that India has other priorities such as health care for the poor, education for the masses and basic infrastructure. Funds are finite and choices need to be made. I would disagree. Grass roots development and a space program are not zero sum choices. China only spends 0.03% of its GDP on its space program. India has no alternative but to remain in the space race. The premise of poverty alleviation in fact necessitates that.

This is not to discount the quiet successes of the Indian Space Research Organization. In October, 2001, India launched the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and entered the exclusive commercial satellite launch market. China has had less successes in this regard. In September, 2002, India launched its first weather satellite to more accurately forecast cyclones. In September, 2004, it launched a space satellite for expanding the country's educational network. In May, 2005, India launched two satellites to expand bandwidth to help amateur radio operators and ensure precise mapping of disaster affected areas. It now hopes to land an unmanned satellite on the moon in 2008 at a cost of US$ 74 million. India's space program, while less conspicuous, has had a scientific and developmentalist mandate. The emphasis is on communications, remote sensing, meteorology, agricultural crop production and cadastral surveying. The United States, Russia, China, the European Union, India and Japan constitute the world's space elite. The race to outer space is on. Let's hope that India is no second to China when it comes to the Akash Ganga!


Dric said...

Yes India can easily do that.But i we need some reforms:

1.)Privatising/Outsourcing work in ISRO which can be outsourced(This is already being done,but has to be expanded).ISRO has to concentrate on more on Research and Developemnent.

2.)Recruiting the best people.Govt needs to provide more incentives for joining in ISRO.Incentives can be in the inform of autonomy in work, and better salaries( Not some pompous "Scientist" designations with a paltry Rs.12000 Basic).Scope should be provided to pursuing individual academic/research interests.Resources must be provided for the same.It should be noted that,at present, majority of the Engineers dont even have a dedicated PC at their desk.

3.)Dont reinvent wheels and bullock carts.Make collaborative partnerships with industries and educational institutions both at Home and Abroad.Sign Contracts which include Technology transfers only.

Jaffna said...


Many thanks for your valuable comments. Privatization, outsourcing and partnerships are indeed the way to go. Hope the powers that be hear you.


doubtinggaurav said...


While privatization,outsourcing and partnerships are ideal for development of space technology, I am not sure it is possible in near future.

Along with nuclear technology space science is higly restriced, and will remain so, owing to the fact that it is "dual purpose", i.e it can be used for weapon development.

Seperating our space research and weapon development is neither easy nor advisable.

Restricted nature of this field will discourage private investment,
(I may be wrong on this count as there is demand in US to open-up space reseach to private field, this demand can be tapped by Indian market)

Scope of partnership is limited, again due to the nature of technology.
Although US and India have increased partnership in this field, much work remains.
China is not going to partner India, as we are comptetitors.
We can colloborate with Russia, Japan and may be Europe, depending on how much US is amenable to the idea.

From what I know of DRDO, if ISRO is like DRDO(I suspect it is), it will be comparitively slower, higly bureaucratic and inefficient.
So even higher spending by government may not get the desired result.


PS. Another infromative post, goes without saying :-)

Jaffna said...


I will defer to Dric and you here. I hear your concerns on the sensitivity vis a vis nuclear and space technology. But there may be room for a degree of outsourcing. The defence and aviation industries in the United States illustrate a partnership between the federal government and the private sector. You are right that India will need to introduce a fire wall given the nature of dual use technology. But a link with the private sector and academia will not necessarily hurt provided adequate safeguards are there. The objective is to reduce the red tape, incentivize professionals to contribute and ensure a public-private patnerships with due cognizance of state security.

This is not my area of expertise - so I will defer to you guys :-)

Best regards

libertarian said...

Jaffna, the 'developmental' mindset is great. So is national pride and international prestige. But how about some cold hard cash?

I think the most exciting area - and one that can capture public imagination - is space tourism. Forget about orbital flight for the next 20 years. Sub-orbital flight (at about 65 miles above the earth's surface) is where the moolah's going to be. It has 2 distinct money-making possibilities: one, pure tourism - weightlessness for a few minutes, black sky during the day (no atmosphere - no blue sky) and earning official astronaut/cosmonaut/akash-ganga-naut wings; two, super-fast, high-end, executive (as expensive as Concorde) travel between cities - any 2 points on earth are within 2 hours of each other.

To do so, we need to perfect our rocket technology, build a re-usable, easily fuelable rocket, and possibly a mother launcher as demonstrated by Branson and Burt Rutan. Or we can license their technology and build a business by minimizing all other costs (which should be lower in India than in the US).

Of course this will see the light of day only through some greedy entrepeneur's actions, not any government. The most likely guy to be interested (and with the resources to pull it off) might be Vijay Mallya.


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