A day before the eager launch of Chandrayaan-3 in India, a piece of massive news broke out in the US. The US Senate Sub-Committee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies has scathingly reduced the NASA budget for Mars Sample Return (MSR), the next crucial step in understanding the Red Planet. Of the NASA ask for 949 million dollars for MSR for 2024, the Sub-Committee has only offered 300 million dollars, threatening to take that away too. To give a perspective, NASA’s first attempt at bringing Martian soil and rocks back to Earth is currently pegged at 10 billion dollars. This is way less than the nearly 46 billion dollars the US Department of Defense has offered Ukraine since 2022 for a mindless war. Why are we discussing this on the day when Chandrayaan-3 is getting launched?
Recently in India, a US-based space company, an integral part of the latter’s Artemis Program, admitted that Artemis is a way to pool financial resources from various countries and their space programmes. So if the US Senate curtails NASA’s budgetary ask, we in India and other Artemis signatories must expect a massive sales pitch for investing in or getting our space companies merged or acquired by these influential space companies. Well, this Ponzi scheme may excite and entice many around us, but the fact remains that such space companies are eager to see the end of days of diversified scientific exploration. Artemis and its created counter – the Sino-Russian International Lunar Research Station – are compelling space agencies worldwide to align with the goals that the bloc leaders are deciding, leaving no scope for their own space agencies to pursue scientific exploration rendering the talent pool that could carry out MSR like missions unutilised. If NASA does not carry out MSR, then the talent pool that can realise it will not get a chance to demonstrate its prowess anywhere in the world. The US Senate’s decision empowers such coercion as it increasingly chooses space economy over space science. NASA’s plans for Mars have matured gradually but are now a second priority for the US Senate. Let us not use the word planetary exploration and the Artemis programme in the same breath. What is planned for the moon under the Artemis programme is commercial prospecting and surveying, not science. Eventually, once the lunar goals are set in motion, Mars is the next consumer’s destination, and the US government is ready to pump money to send humans to Mars, a planet that neither it nor other nations fully understand. MSR is an important step to understanding Mars.
Exploration, too, is a commercial enterprise, as is prospecting and surveying. The necessity to support missions like Chandrayaan-3 stems from learning more about the Moon, its geology and mineralogy, its interactions with solar radiation, and the nature of water on the Moon. There might be aspects of the Moon that we are entirely oblivious to. The same is the case for Mars. Therefore, American space policymakers are placing the cart before the horse by hurriedly encouraging exploitation over scientific exploration. Such companies’ significant influence on the global space community eventually creates a cultural phenomenon that does not benefit humanity in the long run.
Science and commerce can co-exist, but for that, there needs to be equal respect, and clearly, those with dollars rolling in their eyes are throwing a spanner in the wheels of exploration. Now this is for India, China, Europe, Japan, and Russia; For the first time in modern history, the mantle of scientific space exploration has come to you. There is no disagreement that the US is abandoning scientific exploration of the Moon and Mars over their commercial exploitation. When Artemis and Sino-Russian International Lunar Research Station should have led to joint scientific exploration missions that would have developed camaraderie between otherwise contesting powers and a sense of shared human purpose, commercial exploitation creates unnecessary astropolitical acrimonies that humanity cannot afford now.
Take it from India’s perspective; space commerce does not need to trample upon space science. Both can co-exist as we can pursue commerce that is humble before the forces of nature. There is no reason for India to refrain from telling the world that consumerism and mercantilism cannot be the driver of humanity’s lunar and Martian dreams. Make the Moon and Mars a testing ground for technologies that can eventually benefit humankind.
ISRO, which now has been asked by the Indian government to focus fully on research and development, must aim to develop lunar and Martian space payloads that can be spin-off into precision instruments – those that usually get categorised as HSN code 90. I must call for the attention of India’s strategic policymakers – please realise that space payload development is the path through which India can reduce its import dependency on HSN 90 commodities. India is dangerously import-dependent – more than 90% – on such commodities, so much so that if our relations with any exporters of HSN 90 products sour, they will definitely consider sanctioning sales and servicing such precision instruments. What will our sanctionable import dependency result in? The research in our ISRO, DRDO, ICAR, CSIR, ICMR, IIT, NIPER, private R&D laboratories, and medical facilities will all stand a standstill. Even if that doesn’t happen – being so import dependent on precision instruments would not suit the stature of India, which is marching towards coming into the world’s top three economies.
India’s voice in the global space community is that of respect and adulation. It is the Voice of the Global South. Therefore, New Delhi’s space planners must speak for greater global interest in planetary science than the interest of a few in the commercial exploitation of the Moon and Mars, which is a costly affair that some in the US want to offset to Artemis signatories. Commerce and science are not antipodal to each other – both can co-exist. But if the leader of the Artemis bloc so readily defund NASA-led scientific exploration, the confidence among signatories will diminish considerably. With the US emphasising private-sector-led lunar missions over NASA’s glorious heritage, it is ceding the space agency-led initiatives to ISRO, CNSA, CNES, JAXA, Roscosmos, and ESA.
On this day when ISRO, now entirely focusing on R&D, launches Chandrayaan-3, we in India must think about how our private sector can create an arrangement with ISRO where frequent scientific exploration missions to the Moon and Mars led by ISRO and Indian academia can make an enormous spin-off market for the space technologies developed by we the tax-payers. Such technologies must do good to the lives of commoners directly or indirectly. All those selling the pipe dream of exploiting and inhabiting the sterile, uninviting and spartan Moon and Mars are grossly underestimating what nature has to offer. For now, let human spaceflight remain restricted to Earth orbits and planetary exploration to robots. Let scientific planetary exploration be a viable detente platform for a heteropolar world. Mercantile consumerism in space will take us one step closer to a consequence undesired by all.