Wednesday morning, India launched a satellite that makes clear its intentions to join what is emerging as a second space race.
After at least 12 days in orbit, it will attempt something that no Indian satellite has ever before attempted: to return to Earth, splashing down in the Bay of Bengal. If successful, India would join an exclusive group – only the United States, Russia, China, and the European Union have mastered the technology necessary to recover a capsule and its cargo safely.
As India considers setting up its own manned space program, this mission represents an indispensable first step. Yet it is also part of Asia's increasing spaceward gaze, as economic maturity and a desire for international prestige – as well as China's entry into the space sweepstakes – prompt countries into action.
"You see this in East Asia in general," says Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review, an online journal. "Japan feels it has fallen behind China, South Korea is developing its own launch vehicle, and India slots in very close to China. It is a rising power."
For India, Wednesday's launch was a milestone in more than one respect. Not only did it carry the SRE-1 recoverable satellite, which will perform zero-gravity experiments before plunging into the Bay of Bengal, but it also included three other satellites – the largest and most complex payload ever deployed by an Indian rocket.
These are heady times for the Indian Space Research Organization. Since its inception in 1972, ISRO has concerned itself with only the most practical of space projects, such as communications and mapping satellites to help farmers and villagers. In this way, India's space program "is totally unique," says Will Marshall, an expert at the Space Policy Institute in Washington.
Yet as India's economic reforms take hold, and the aspirations of its governing class broaden, its agenda for space has become bolder as well. Next year, ISRO will launch Chandrayaan to the Moon – the first Indian satellite to venture beyond Earth's orbit. By 2013, it hopes to launch a probe to Mars. Later that decade, it could send up its first "gaganaut" – one suggestion for a Sanskrit version of "astronaut" – and even visit the Moon.
As of yet, India has no official manned space program. In November, however, a gathering of 80 of India's top scientists unanimously endorsed an ISRO plan to begin manned spaceflights by 2014. And though the current mission was not developed as a test for manned spaceflight technologies, "all of it would be useful," says S. Krishnamurthy, a spokesman for ISRO in Bangalore.
India insists that this shift from the practical to the adventurous is purely in its own national interest, and not a reaction to any other nation. Indeed, experts say planetary science and manned spaceflight are a logical next step for India.
"Space agencies tend to be those agencies which push technology into new areas," says Dr. Marshall, adding that ISRO might simply be looking to a new challenge to develop new technologies.
Yet increasingly, keeping up with its peers might be in India's national interests.
In the next two years, the United States, China, and Japan will each send its own orbiter to the Moon. Each has additional plans for a manned Moon mission, with dates ranging from 2018 to 2025; ISRO has said it wants to put an Indian on the Moon by 2020. Meanwhile, South Korea is just establishing a space program, and its recent selection of two astronauts to ride on a Russian rocket became a nationally televised event.
But unlike some of its space-bound colleagues, the Indian government's ambitions are relatively frugal. Its mission to the Moon will cost about $88 million, while America's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been tagged at more than $700 million.
Another impetus for the new Asian space race (aside from prestige) is that this competition is not based solely – or perhaps even primarily – on planetary science. The upcoming lunar orbiters are as much prospectors as scientific probes, sniffing out what natural resources might be available when humans return. The US, China, and Japan plan to return to the moon as early as 10 to 15 years from now. Moreover, India is hoping to parlay its increasing space expertise into more contracts for launches and backroom engineering. Already, one European satellite maker, EADS Astrium, is outsourcing work to India, and Israel has chosen to launch one of its spy satellites from India.
What is less clear is whether the Indian space program's new direction might also help feed a more robust Indian military. To date, ISRO has remained fiercely civilian, and experts doubt that India has done much – if anything – toward weaponizing space. But China's growing might, combined with America's refusal to rule out military uses of space, have created new pressures.
Among Indian analysts, there is the belief that "the Chinese space program is primarily military in nature, and that it is so far ahead of India," says Subrata Ghoshroy of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "It is a huge concern."
India (2007 or 2008)
Purpose: Test technologies, map the geography and minerals of the moon
Purpose: Test technologies, map geography in 3D, and explore moon's mineral resources
Purpose: Map the geography and minerals of the moon, study the moon's structure and magnetic field
Name: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
Mission length: one year (possibly extended to five)
Purpose: Imaging polar areas that may contain water