India’s moonshot and the new space race

Indian space rocket
Vikram Indian space rocket. (Photo: Twitter/X)
India made history with its Chandrayaan-3 mission soft landing near the moon’s south pole, becoming the fourth nation to successfully complete a lunar landing and the first to do so in that part of the moon. Last month’s accomplishment has sparked a flurry of debates, especially in the Western media, questioning the rationale behind a developing country investing in space exploration.اضافة اعلان

Yet the moon mission was not just a technological triumph. Executed at a cost lower than the production budget of some Hollywood blockbusters, the moon mission has underscored India’s burgeoning capabilities for cost-effective innovation, further solidifying its position as a global leader in space technology.

The moon harbors valuable minerals, like lithium, nickel, and platinum, which have far-reaching applications, from the ongoing global energy transition to various industries like electronics and aerospace. The existing space economy is already reported to be worth at least $469 billion, covering goods and services produced in space for use on Earth. This opens a plethora of opportunities for developing countries like India to not only advance in scientific research but also to tap into a new avenue for economic growth. In short, by investing in space technology, India is not merely advancing its scientific prowess; it is also setting the stage for future economic growth through potential resource extraction.

India’s achievement is also a massive geopolitical statement. By successfully landing on the moon, India has joined the ranks of "astropolitical powers" alongside the United States, China, and Russia. Amid the ongoing competition between China and the United States, India is looking to carve out its unique role in reshaping the world order.

However, as more countries turn their eyes to the moon’s abundant resources, the absence of global norms could lead to a chaotic scramble for lunar minerals. It is therefore crucial to establish international guidelines to prevent a Wild West scenario in space exploration. The US-led Artemis Accords, for instance, aim to provide a framework for peaceful lunar activities. However, these accords are not universally accepted, highlighting the urgent need for inclusive international agreements that can govern space exploration and resource extraction.

For example, while open to Western-led frameworks on space exploration, India has also been exploring opportunities with the International Lunar Research Station, an initiative led by China and Russia. This dual engagement reflects India's nuanced approach to international partnerships in space exploration, as it seeks to maintain strategic flexibility in a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape.

Nonetheless, what is significant in India’s signing onto the Artemis Accords is perhaps a subtle shift in its position on the non-appropriation principle established by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The principle, a cornerstone of international space law, states that celestial bodies like the moon cannot be claimed by any state, preventing the colonization of outer space by a single country. The Artemis Accords by contrast, while not contradicting the non-appropriation principle, introduces the concept of “safe zones,” which could allow countries to be in de-facto possession of specified zones or areas of celestial bodies. How Russia and China respond to this, is only a matter of time.

While India’s moon landing is seen as a counter to Western imperialism, it also raises questions about the true meaning of decolonization. Much of the decolonization narrative is justified. The Western press has not done itself any favors by questioning whether India’s developmental needs would have been better served by focusing on health care, infrastructure, and on ameliorating its social problems. In 2014, when India successfully put a robotic probe into orbit around Mars, the New York Times carried a blatantly racist cartoon showing a man with a cow knocking on a door of a room marked Elite Space Club (the newspaper subsequently apologized after a furore).

Racism in Western media, particularly that of its public intellectuals, was on public display during the initial stages of the Ukraine conflict. Western media personalities openly referred to the fact that Ukrainians, on account of their physical appearance, were “civilized” and “look like us.” The implication was, particularly when compared to images of the chaos that followed America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, that Ukrainian lives mattered more than those of Afghans and other people fleeing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

None of this is new for the peoples of the Global South or for the regimes that govern them. While India’s moon landing is seen as a counter to Western imperialism, it also raises questions about the true meaning of decolonization. Is the narrative being misused to curtail freedoms gained during the anti-colonial struggle? This is a concern not just for India but for other formerly colonized countries as well. As the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US intensifies, countries like India are leveraging this historical moment to reshape domestic policies under the guise of decolonization, often at the expense of their own constitutional values. Indian intellectuals have voiced concerns about this trend.

India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission then is a microcosm of the larger dynamics at play in the realm of space exploration and geopolitics. From economic benefits and cost-effective innovation to geopolitical maneuvering and the process of decolonization, the mission has encapsulated the complexities and opportunities that come with space exploration. While India’s journey to the moon offers valuable lessons to all established and aspiring space-faring powers, it also highlights the urgent necessity of achieving a global consensus on space exploration.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities. X: @sybaritico

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