Aindia Vs China Rival Space Odyssies
When strides in space technology, as reflected by frequent satellite launches, become a measure of country’s symbol of progression, then the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has carved a niche for itself, which is much ahead of India and Japan, the two Asian nations also having ambitious space programmes. This was quite evident from Beijing’s recent launch of an experimental Tiangong-1 module aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket.
The latest launch is meant to lay the groundwork for a future Chinese space station and seems to reflect the PRC’s resolute will to assume the coveted status of a superpower as well as a leading space power in the years to come. The placing of the 8.5-tonne Tiangong-1 into space from the Gobi desert in China’s northwest, incidentally, marks the country’s first step towards building its own space station.
After the module, which is to be positioned more than 300 kms above the earth, PRC plans to launch another unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft to carry out remote-controlled docking trials. This is to be followed by two more missions, at least one of them manned, which are to meet up with the module next year with astronauts staying for up to one month. This will eventually culminate in the development of the actual space station in three sections between 2020 and 2022.
The space station is the most ambitious project in China’s exploration of space, which also calls for landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts. At about 60 tonnes when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which is expected to continue operating through 2028.
ISS is a combined endeavour of several nations including the US, Russia, Japan, Canada, and various members of the European Union. China, which calls its activities in space as peaceful, was not allowed to join the 16-nation ISS despite its repeated requests possibly due to its space programme’s secrecy and control by the People’s Liberation Army. Beijing’s other space-based military projects, including the destruction of a defunct Chinese satellite with a rocket in 2007, have caused security-related suspicions internationally on its so-called focus on peaceful explorations of the outer space, lending credence to the dragon’s possible covert objectives on militarisation of the outer space.
China sent its first manned flight in 2003 making the first Chinese spaceman Yang Liwei, an instant super hero in the country. It was nearly half a century after the former Soviet Union and the United States had made history by launching pioneering manned flights in the early 1960s. USSR’s Yuri Gagarin made the first human journey in the outer space in his Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961, followed by the US astronaut Alan Shepard. Incidentally, like the Chinese, Japanese do not brag about their achievements in the outer space but Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as JAXA, has accumulated enough expertise in space technology.
In 2007, JAXA succeeded in launching lunar orbit explorer Kaguya, the largest such mission since the Apollo programme, on an H-2A rocket. Its mission was to gather data on the moon’s origin and evolution. JAXA also has plans to develop independent space missions, such as a proposed manned mission to the moon and has set a goal of constructing a manned lunar base. Japanese robots and then astronauts would be sent to the moon around 2020. Another Asian country with an advanced space exploration programme is South Korea, which is aggressively pursuing its long-term vision of joining the top 10 space powers in the world within a decade.
Although India has come a long way in its efforts to master the space technology since the first Indian satellite Aryabhata was launched, it falls short of pre-requisites needed for a successful space exploration. Aryabhata was followed by the Rohini series of experimental satellites that were built and launched indigenously. Rohini, the first satellite to be placed in orbit by an Indian-made launch vehicle (SLV 3), was launched in 1980. Prior to this, ISRO in its infancy had taken help from the Soviet and European rocket carriers for space launches.
ISRO has many feats to its credit like successful post-launch utilisation of two major satellite systems—Indian National Satellites (INSAT) for communication, broadcasting, meteorology and search-and-rescue services, and Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites for management of natural resources. Further, the organisation has developed Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) for putting IRS type of satellites into polar orbits and Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for launching INSAT type of satellites into geostationary orbits.
Improved versions of PSLV have also ingeniously been used to launch communications satellites, earth-observation satellites, and Chandrayaan-1, India’s first mission to the moon. The unmanned lunar exploration mission included a lunar orbiter and an impactor called the Moon Impact Probe. India launched the spacecraft using a modified version of the PSLV on October 22, 2008, from Sriharikota. It carried high-resolution remote-sensing equipment for visible, near infrared, and soft and hard X-ray frequencies.
The Chandrayaan-1, which to be followed by Chandrayan-2, is credited to be the first lunar mission to discover existence of water on the moon. ISRO has also conducted experiments demonstrating its capability to recover an orbiting space capsule and is to launch SRE-2 and SRE-3 to test advanced re-entry technology for future manned missions. It also has plans to put two astronauts into orbit around 2016.
Despite the foregoing achievements, India today finds itself lagging behind China in the space race. One of the main reasons behind its success is Beijing’s authoritarian, centralised political system, which offers freedom from political wrangles over budgeting. Moreover, the cash-rich Chinese are awash with funds for the strategic technological fields like the space and defence. New Delhi must forge ahead keeping in mind that prowess in space and allied technology will usher in the spirit of confidence and national pride besides enhancing India’s global stature.
It must be noted that there is no shortage of scientific talent in India. The government only needs to nurture it further by doubling its budgetary backup to ISRO to gain economic as well as defence-related spin-offs, technological advancements, and the much needed international prestige.
By NK Pant
The author is Wing Commander [retd])