India in Moon Race with Big Asian Dogs
"If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to stop pissing with the puppies". These words are attributed to Robert Blackwill, former US Ambassador to India, in his oft-repeated lectures to the Indian government earlier this decade. The "puppies" reference here is apparently a dig at India's obsession with Pakistan.
Finally, after years of futile focus on Pakistan, India is heeding the advice of Ambassador Blackwill. The country began the countdown Monday to the launch of its first unmanned mission to the moon that will signify a major catch-up step with Japan and China in the fast-developing Asian space race, according to media reports published today.
"Everything is going perfectly as planned," the center's associate director M.Y.S. Prasad told AFP from Sriharikota, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Chennai, after the official countdown began in the early hours of Monday.
Earlier this year, India did a successful launch of a mission with 10 satellites from the Sriharikota space center to become a serious contender in the fast growing $2.5B commercial satellite launch business.
Beyond the Indian commercial ambitions, this milestone for India represents a strategic capability as an emerging economic and military power on the world stage. This is also a great comeback for ISRO about two years after a launch in 2006 had to be destroyed less than a minute after lift off when it veered from its path.
India still has a long way to go to catch up with China which, along with the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency, is already well-established in the commercial launch business. Chinese officials are already planning a manned mission to the moon in the future, after following the United States and the former Soviet Union last month by a successful space walk, although a more immediate goal is the establishment of an orbiting space lab. AFP reports that Beijing's long-term ambition is to develop a fully-fledged space station by 2020 to rival the International Space Station, a joint project involving the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and several European countries. Japan has also been boosting its space efforts and has set a goal of a manned mission to the moon by 2020. Japan's first lunar probe, Kaguya, was successfully launched in September last year, releasing two mini-satellites which will be used to study the gravity fields of the moon among other projects. The development of a space race in Asia has both commercial and security implications, with the potential for developing military applications such as intelligence gathering and space-based weapons. Earlier this year, Japan ended self-imposed prohibition on militarization of space, hoping to remove any legal barriers to building more advanced spy satellites.
The Pakistan Space Agency or Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), the equivalent of ISRO in India, is the Pakistani state-run space agency responsible for Pakistan's space program. It was formed in September 1961 by the order of President Ayub Khan on the advice of Professor Dr Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate, who was also made its founding director. The headquarters of SUPARCO is located in Islamabad, however with the development of Sonmiani it is expected that the new headquarters will be moved in the near future. The agency also has offices in Lahore and at Karachi (an engineering installation). SUPARCO has no launch capability of its own. It has relied on Chinese and Russian space agencies to launch its satellites Badr-1 and Badr-2.
SUPARCO saw major cuts in its budget in the 1980s and 1990s. Last year, its annual budget was a modest $6m. In fact, Pakistan had no communication satellites in space until 2003. The urgency to place its first satellite in a geo-stationary orbit was keenly felt in the middle of 2003, by which time Pakistan had already lost four of its five allocated space slots. The five slots were allocated to Pakistan by ITU (International Telecommunication Union) back in 1984, but the country failed to launch any satellite till 1995. That year Pakistan again applied for and received the five slots, but once again the government failed to get a satellite into orbit, losing four of it slots in the process. According to officials, if Pakistan had failed to launch its satellite by April 19, 2003, the country would have lost its fifth and last 38-degree east slot when the availability of these space slots is getting difficult every day.
With the current economic crisis, it is unlikely that Pakistan will boost space spending to try and follow its bigger, better funded neighbor into space.