Policy Alert: India’s Mars Mission Sparks Reactions from BRIC Countries
On November 5, 2013, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched its first unmanned Mars-bound spacecraft Mangalyaan. If the mission succeeds, India will become the first Asian nation to follow the United States, Russia, and Europe in conducting a successful Mars expedition. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentaries from India, China, Russia, and Brazil on the implications of this new development.
Soon after the successful launch of Mangalyaan, congratulatory notes started pouring in from political leaders, praising the ISRO and its scientists.
- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed the launch as a “historic achievement,” congratulating ISRO scientists for the significant milestone.
- Congress President Sonia Gandhi expressed a sense of exhilaration, remarking, “Every Indian is proud of this outstanding scientific feat by our great scientists.”
- Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanasamy praised the successful launch calling it a historic moment for the country. “India is the fourth country in the world to take up the Mars expedition and our scientists deserve congratulation for it.”
Amidst such excitement, however, there were questions about the mission’s $72 million price tag for a country still dealing with widespread hunger and poverty.
- Jean Drèze, an influential development economist, bluntly critiqued the mission. “I don’t understand the importance of India sending a space mission to Mars when half of its children are undernourished and half of all Indian families have no access to sanitation.”
- K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the ISRO, forcefully defended the space program, insisting that “the Mars mission is a historical necessity, since after having helped find water on the moon, looking for signatures of life on Mars is a natural progression.”
- U. R. Rao, former ISRO head, joined the defense. “India spends around $800 million on Diwali purchases (fireworks for Hindu New Year festival) and $72 million to reach Mars is affordable.”
- Former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair disagreed from a more practical perspective, claiming that the Mars mission “is not a big priority” at this stage for India, which, instead, should have devoted time and energy on its human space flight program as “the immediate priority.”
Meanwhile, India’s Mars mission has sparked a debate on a potential “space race” between India and China, but Indians were quick to dismiss such concerns.
- ISRO chairman Radhakrishnan assured that India is “not engaged in a space race with China.” “There is no race with anybody. Everybody has their own direction. So, I find no need to race with them.”
- Former ISRO head G. Madhavan Nair admitted that India lags behind China in space. “India and China were almost equal five years ago…In the last five years, while India was sleeping, the Chinese steadily surged forward…[T]hey are going to have an upper hand in space not only in the Asia Pacific region but globally as well.”
- The Hindu shared a similar view. “If India does triumph with its Mars mission, it will havestolen a march on its Asian rivals. But it will not mean that this country has pulled ahead of Japan or China, which have far more advanced capabilities in many areas of space technology.”
Chinese editorials downplayed the Mangalyaan achievement while touting China’s own space capabilities.
- The Global Times acknowledged that while New Delhi “did manage to carry out its Mars exploration program with a budget of only $73 million, much less than the spending of China and Japan,” China is still “…already in advance of India…New Delhi has set China as its target, while China views the advanced level of the U.S. and Russia as a reference.”
- Calling outer space “the common heritage of mankind,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that every state is entitled to the right to peacefully explore and make use of space.
- Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology reported that “China is ready to conduct its own exploration of Mars in the near future.”
Commentary in Russia focused on the Soviet legacy and its influence on the development of India’s space program.
- Journalist Vladimir Gubarev traced India’s space story back to its earliest stages in Pravda, concluding, “Frankly, I am glad that India is striding to space by leaps and bounds and becoming one of the leading space powers…this is a great thing- the Indian industry built with the help of the Soviet Union that greatly helped India.”
- A Russia Times editorial contrasted the perceived “space race” between China and India with that of the Soviet Union and the United States. “Unlike in the Cold War era, when the USSR and the US engaged in a spectacular tit-for-tat space race while remaining economically and politically estranged from each other, China and India today have a booming trade relationship and are not engaged in any outright ideological confrontation.”
The launch in India caused some evaluation of Brazil’s existing space program which was stunted by a 2003 explosion.
- Correio do Brasil reported that India’s recent rocket launch conjured up memories of a rocket launch explosion 10 years prior in which 21 civil servants died. The accident slowed progress in Brazil’s solo satellite launches, though future launches are planned. Since 2003, only joint Brazil-China launches with China have occurred, the result of a 1988 Brazil-China partnership.