Wednesday 23 August 2023

Why India is on the Moon

Congratulations to the Indian Space Research Organisation. In managing a successful soft landing at the Moon's south pole, they have won the distinction of ensuring India is the fourth nation ever to land successfully and the first in this tricky region of Earth's satellite. The Chandrayaan-3 probe and its rover are now poised to return a wealth of scientific data about the pole, which holds significant quantities of water ice and other minerals and chemicals that have been of interest to all the space-faring powers for some time. And for those of us who overdosed on too much science fiction and tech optimism, it's another step toward making humans an interplanetary species.

Let's not get too dewy eyed though. Space exploration, which should be for the benefit of all, most emphatically is not. As many a critique of space programmes have pointed out, it's obscene for resources to be expended on mucking about in the heavens when there are so many pressing problems on the Earth. This is especially so in India's case. According to the World Bank, most recent figures (2017) found between 10.4% and 13.6% of the population were in "extreme poverty" (i.e. subsisting on less than $1.90/day). A decline on the rates saw in 2011, but by no means keeping pace with the explosion in GDP. Undoubtedly, over the coming days a Tory MP will appear to question UK state aid to India, which was around £2.3bn between 2016 and 2021. But the point remains, with such levels of poverty in India, which amounts to well over 100 million people, how can a space programme be justified?

It can't in moral terms, but then realpolitik and capitalism don't owe much to morality. As the former president of India, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam put it in his autobiography, "Very many individuals with myopic vision questioned the relevance of space activities in a newly independent nation which was finding it difficult to feed its population. But neither Prime Minister Nehru nor Prof. Sarabhai had any ambiguity of purpose. Their vision was very clear: if Indians were to play a meaningful role in the community of nations, they must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to their real-life problems."

Following the withdrawal of Britain and partition in 1947, for decades the Indian ruling class were dedicated to a project of national independence. Loosely modelled on the Soviet Union, albeit with liberal democratic characteristics, India followed the path of many industrialising nations. Import tariffs, national infrastructure projects, and efforts at making the country less dependent on global markets dominated by the United States and the West. Under pressure from competition and border conflicts with Pakistan and China, from the early 1960s the Indian government encouraged space research that complemented its rocketry and nuclear weapons programmes, with its first bomb tested in the mid 1970s and the achievement of a range of guided surface-to-surface ballistic missiles by the late 00s. India's announcement about its rocket capabilities coincided in 2008 with Chandrayaan-1's orbit of the Moon, which confirmed the presence of water at the south pole. The development of the space programme after independence was relatively far sighted. Becoming a player in advanced aerospace technologies carved a niche out of an increasingly important sector, especially with the telecommunications revolutions of the late 1970s onwards. Added to that with its position close to the equator India is a sensible location for space launches for third party powers and telecommunications businesses. Decades of investment has produced a world class launch capability and technology that can compete with China, Russia, Europe, and the US. And behind that is the implied strength of Indian arms.

For a coming superpower, which India surely is, sitting out the new space race is not an option. With the US and China eyeing Moon bases, international competition over milestone achievements is a signifier for Indian capability in the space exploration market. As argued before, like military spending monies for space programmes is wasteful but endemic to a class system that puts class relations before the conventional understanding of economic development. But with so many states in the process of building the infrastructure for regular human spaceflight and the colonisation of the Moon, it makes sense for India and the commercial entities spun out of its space programme to be there to profit from what comes decades down the line. Assuming we don't blow ourselves up/drown in rising seas/etc. and there is no significant break with capitalism, it's reasonable to forecast Moon, Venus, and Mars colonies and stations by the end of the century. India's position and, most importantly, the power and wealth of its ruling class would benefit handsomely from playing this pioneering role.


JJ said...

I doubt it is going to happen. The one-time energy bonus of fossil fuels is coming to an end, and the onrushing climate/ecological crisis, and with it the pressures on society from all directions will make this an unreachable dream.

One interesting theory as to why we have not met any advanced aliens in a galaxy teeming with habitable planets, is that they never get off the homeworld as any industrial society drives itself to ruin using up the resources to do so.

(I always thought we would colonise space, but now I think not).

Anonymous said...

Given that Fermi has already been broached here in the comments, and the link back to Ministry of the Future in the post, it's irresistible to make the following point.

There has never before been a more fascinating time for an examination of Fermi. In the last 6 years - if you've been following the right selection of science news - the strongest Great Filter candidates appear to have been falling like ninepins.

So, let's posit: "they" are here.

We would not detect them. Their spacecraft don't have to be much bigger then pebbles. Unlike the "tic-tacs" - whatever those might be - Fermi aliens have quite enough background in common with us to know how to hide from us.

We seem to still be here as well, so we can assume that "they" quite fancy having neighbours.

However, we can probably also safely assume that they don't want Planet Eaters for neighbours.

From that, follows their challenge to us: get off extraction capitalism, or you don't get off that rock.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Sadly I have no such optimism as to envisage a future in which humanity was able to both reach the end of the century and still have the organisation and technology to colonise other planets. I agree with @JJ that the end of the fossil fuel bonanza, and the failure to find a similarly energy dense alternative means that if we are to survive, we will need to focus our technology, and the energy that it requires, onto day-to-day existence.

All the evidence suggests that by about 2040 the energy surplus that has driven our technological progress will have declined to a level where it is about sufficient for maintaining our existing infrastructure. After that, unless fusion can be harnessed, and given the likely escalating impact of climate change on food supplies and habitability of substantial areas, a bleak future of retrenchment and collapse.

Robert said...

Unmanned craft are a lot easier and safer to run, and if they crash, no lives are lost. Nobody’s been much past the international space station, and that’s in low earth orbit — it’s literally just 254 miles overhead. By comparison, the Moon is 238,900 miles from Earth, and the distance from Earth to Mars varies from 34,000,000 miles when it’s on the same side of the sun as we are to 250,000,000 miles when it’s on the far side of the sun from us. People who prattle about space travel tend not to pay attention to the difference. (Oh, and the closest star? 23,500,000,000,000 miles from Earth. Yes, that’s right around a billion times the distance from here to the Moon…)

We're not going to colonise space. We're stuck on this planet and we should take better care of it.