Asia in Space

5 June 2003

Asia in Space

By Gwynne Dyer

The first British mission is on its way to Mars: a sophisticated package the size of a portable barbeque called Beagle 2 that is travelling as a passenger on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, launched by a Russian rocket from Baikonur cosmodrome on 1 June. It will land on 25 December to search for signs of life on Mars, and will be joined within a month by two American robotic landers called Mars Exploration Rovers that NASA has sent mainly to search for water.

In fact, there is going to be something of a traffic jam around Mars, which is making a particularly close approach to Earth this year, with a Japanese probe called Planet B/Nozomi also arriving to study the planet from orbit next January. And then there’s the tiny Muses-C probe that blasted off from Japan last month to visit an asteroid called 1998 SF36 and bring back half a teaspoonful of rock.

That’s how the developed countries do their deep-space exploration these days: small robot probes packed with highly sensitive instruments that don’t cost too much to boost out of our planet’s gravity well. It’s three decades now since any human being went further than a couple of hundred miles (kilometres) from Earth, and with all the surviving American shuttle craft grounded indefinitely since the Columbia disaster last February, only Russia currently has the capacity to send a person into orbit at all. But that’s all going to change shortly: the Asians are coming.

“The cohorts of space exploration will benefit from the strong and richly creative force of the Chinese people,” boasted the New China News Agency last January, celebrating the successful unmanned test of the space capsule Shenzou (Divine Vessel) IV and announcing that the vehicle’s next launch, scheduled for the second half of this year, will carry at least one Chinese taikonaut (astronaut) into space. Not long afterwards, India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee startled a Bombay conference by revealing that his scientists were now also talking of sending a man into space.

That’s not all. In April the Indian Space Research Organisation’s chairman, Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, announced in Bangalore that his agency planned to send an unmanned probe to orbit the Moon by 2005, and to follow that up with a manned mission by 2015. The mission to the Moon would “electrify the nation and show the world that India is capable of taking up complex projects at the cutting edge of space research,” he said. Cynical observers noted that it would also show the Chinese, India’s great rivals, just who is who in the emerging Asian space race. But that’s all right: after all, it was rivalry between the United States and the old Soviet Union that got the first human beings into orbit and then on to the Moon.

It’s early days yet, but there is no doubt that both India and China can get people back on the Moon within ten or twelve years if they are willing to spend the money. The technology they have right now is already considerably better than what was available to the Apollo missions almost forty years ago: it’s just a matter of scaling it up and getting some experience with it. The Chinese press even refers to plans for permanent space stations and moon bases, though it’s unlikely that these are concrete projects yet.

What may be emerging here, indeed, is the next major era of manned space exploration — something that will annoy those who believe that space is a primarily scientific enterprise, and delight those who think it is about something larger. These unashamed romantics use historical analogies about the discovery of new lands and wax eloquent about humanity’s destiny when asked exactly what that larger thing is, because the very nature of exploration is that you don’t know what is there before you find it. But they don’t want to be ruled by the accountants and they don’t want to leave it all to the robots — and in the industrialised world, they have been losing most of the arguments for a long time now.

When they were winning them, back in the 60s and early 70s, it was thanks to the acute rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was just as much about prestige as it was about military power. Men in orbit and on the Moon translated into prestige then, and it would do so all the more for Asia’s great rivals, China and India, because they would essentially be supplanting the first-generation space powers of the industrialised world.

Would it be money down the drain in the end? Nobody will know the answer to that for certain until manned space exploration has gone a lot further than Americans and Russians took it before they retreated to near-Earth orbit. Would it help to help to divert and sublimate the potentially lethal nuclear rivalry between the two Asian giants? Maybe. And would it force the old space powers to get back in the manned exploration game too, for fear of being left behind by the upstarts?

That is the 64-rupee question.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“In fact…rock”; and”It’s early…yet”)