Feb. 15, 2017, will be remembered as a day that many top officials of the Chinese space establishment may want to forget.
Just a month-and-a-half ago, in December 2016, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) had issued an ambitious white paper highlighting its achievements and future programmes.
But here they were, congratulating India on the successful launch of a record 104 satellites—101 of them foreign—in a single mission and even acknowledging that China could learn a few things from its south Asian neighbour.
On that day, Chinese space officials gathered to discuss the Indian achievement and analysed what China must do to make its own space missions commercially viable.
They saw this Indian success as a clear signal that it will beat China in the space launch business. In other words, China viewed India as an arch rival in space tech.
Having said that, the Indian side isn’t bereft of this competitive spirit either. Officials at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) publicly maintain that China is never viewed as a rival. ISRO would even like to collaborate with the CNSA, they say. Significantly, the December 2016 Chinese white paper even mentions a few projects in which India is involved. In private conversations, though, at least some Indian officials declare that China must be beaten.
“A new space race is under way in Asia, with China and India duelling for dominance while other countries make leaps of their own. National pride and defence are major motivators, but so are practical considerations,” the Financial Times reported in January 2017.
There are both similarities and dissimilarities in the two countries’ space programmes.
While the Chinese stepped into the field in the late 1950s, India entered in 1962. China’s annual space spending stood at $6.1 billion in 2013 while that of India’s was $1.2 billion, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The CNSA’s vice-administrator, Wu Yanhua, has declared that his organisation’s aim “is to rank among the world top-three by around 2030,” alongside the US and Russia, and build China into a space power in all respects. The white paper said “the Chinese government takes the space industry as an important part of the nation’s overall development strategy.”
However, India, the world’s sixth biggest space power, has not yet professed to any such global ambitions or suggested an overarching doctrine.
Meanwhile, India has launched 180 satellites from 23 countries till now. While exact figures for China are unavailable, it is generally presumed in space-tech circles that it is lower than India’s. In 2016, when China launched satellites for Spain, Uruguay and Belarus, Indian rockets carried payloads from Canada, Germany, Indonesia, the US, and Algeria.
While both countries’ activities in this field have been eyed with suspicion by other major space powers, and subjected to crippling restrictions for decades, India and China have developed their specific areas of expertise to circumvent western pressure on their programs.
India, for instance, took to frugal economics and modest goals while China has been more ambitious. Yet, at some point their courses were bound to intersect or clash. In fact, pointing at this budding rivalry, American space expert and professor at the US Naval War College, Joan Johnson Freese, said that the real space race was in Asia.
The low-cost game
Nowhere was China’s alarm and admiration of ISRO’s Feb. 15 feat more evident than in its prestigious English-language daily, The Global Times, published by the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. In a Feb. 20, 2017, op-ed piece, it said ISRO’s success could serve as a wake-up call for China, which was losing in the commercial space market mainly because of its inability to obtain components from the US. “Its independent research and indigenous manufacturing of parts and components for satellites will help China bypass restrictions imposed by the US,” it said, adding that China must reduce its launch costs.
The Global Times said India’s achievements are largely driven by the low-price advantage, a weak point in China’s commercial space sector. In fact, Indian strategic affairs expert C Uday Bhaskar, director of the New Delhi-based think-tank Society for Policy Studies, has been quoted by other media outlets as saying that India can put satellites into orbit at between 60% and 70% less cost than other countries.
The CNSA, too, has for long been looking at ways and means to economise its own operations. China “will conduct research into the technologies for low-cost launch vehicles and a reusable space transportation system,” the white paper said.
Interestingly, ISRO successfully tested its reusable launch vehicle (RLV) on May 23, 2016. Some more test flights have been planned after which the RLV could be declared operational, potentially bringing down costs further and attracting more global customers. Of course, this worries China which is yet to fly such a rocket.
In another article, the Global Times erroneously claimed that India had not acquired the capability, like China, to launch satellites in multiple orbits. On Sept. 26, 2016, ISRO’s workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), placed eight satellites in two different orbits in a single flight.
Yet, frugality is just a ground-level quest. Both countries are racing for the planets, too.
The race to Mars
India and China have planned interplanetary missions. The question is who will get where first. Jupiter is certainly on the radar and so is Venus. But the Red Planet is where all the action is aimed at right now.
According to Freese, the main aim of India’s Mangalyaan mission, the country’s ground-breaking maiden flight to Mars on Nov. 05, 2013, was to surpass China, a theory emphatically denied by ISRO officials.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that India did overtake China in its very first attempt and at a meagre $71 million. The Chinese Mars programme began in 2009 in collaboration with Russia. However, the Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt, carrying the Chinese Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1, crashed on Nov. 09, 2011, causing a serious setback to China. The failed project cost $117 million, the Wall Street Journal (paywall) reported.
Now China has decided to do it alone and is working towards placing a lander and rover on Earth’s closest neighbour by 2020. This is around the same time that India plans its second mission to Mars. However, unlike China, India will only send an orbiter, shelving its earlier plans for a lander and rover. ISRO officials say the second mission will be scientifically more sophisticated. Yet, without a lander and rover, China could be the winner this time around.
Man in space
Chinese president Xi Jinping did not mince words when he declared in December 2016 that China is striving to become a “great space power.” He had announced that a Chinese space station will become operational in 2022. In April 2017, China will launch a Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft, which will be a stepping stone towards transporting supplies to the space station.
The setting up of the Chinese space station emphasises the importance China is according to its human space flight programme, which India has not done.
China is the third nation after the US and Russia to develop a manned space programme. Its taikonauts (Chinese term for astronauts) have mastered the technology required for spacewalks.
However, India has put its much-publicised human space flight programme in cold storage for several reasons. On Feb. 15, 2017, ISRO chief AS Kiran Kumar told the media at Sriharikota, India’s vast spaceport near Chennai, that the human spaceflight project was no more a priority.
And it is the government of India that is to blame for letting China surge ahead in this area.
New Delhi is not convinced about the merits of this complex project that could cost nearly Rs14,000 crore, despite being warned that India may lose out to other countries.
Interestingly, while the government has not cleared the human spaceflight programme, ISRO successfully tested an unmanned crew module in the maiden flight of the new rocket called Launch Vehicle Mark-3 (LMV-3) on Dec. 18, 2014.
The crew module was a part of ISRO’s manned flight project and officials were hoping its success will convince the government to clear the programme. At the Make In India exposition, Mumbai, in February 2016, even the space suit to be worn by Indian astronauts was on display.
Two-and-a-half years later, it still remains only a dream. All that happened was a congratulatory tweet from prime minister Narendra Modi at the LMV-3’s launch.
Top CNSA officials have said that once the Chinese space station becomes operational, it will be thrown open to all countries. Space experts in India are now asking what if one of the earliest occupants of the Chinese space station is from India’s arch rival Pakistan?
Meanwhile, ISRO’s Kumar told a gathering of nuclear scientists at the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, on Feb. 20, 2017, that India has the capability to build a space station. Kumar’s statement is being read in many circles as a response to China’s plans. “The day the country takes the decision, we will okay the project. Just draw a policy and provide us necessary funds and time,” Kumar said, adding “the sooner the better.”
Over the moon
On Dec. 27, 2013, an Indian television channel reported that the country was planning a mission to put an Indian on the moon. However, ISRO dismissed the report.
Meanwhile, the Chinese lunar mission is likely to outpace India’s. Its first mission to the moon in 2007, Chang’e-1, mapped the lunar surface. Two more followed—in 2010 (Chang’e -2) and 2013 (Chang’e-3), the third even involved a rover called Yutu.
This year, China has planned a complex sample return mission. Chang’e-5 will bring back a moon rock for analysis. The mission will have a lander, a lunar surface patrol device, and other equipment like a drilling machine.
India’s Chandrayaan-1, launched in October 2008, was cut short on account of a technical problem. However, in scientific terms, it was more successful than any of the three Chinese missions: for the first time, it confirmed the presence of water on the moon. Its second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, is scheduled for 2018 and will include a lander and rover.
With the rise of both India and China in the field of space technology, it is apparent that the western dominance over the last frontier may be finally ending, but the competition between these two nations itself has opened up new avenues for some high-tech drama. Fasten your seat-belts and get set for the race of a lifetime.
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