The National Aerospace and Space Administration of the United States is an institution of great admiration and aspiration among us Indians. We entertain ourselves with urban myths about NASA. We love to imagine that a certain percentage of the NASA workforce is Indian; we love to visualise that NASA often assists in deciphering queries of our cultural past; both untrue.
Long ago, a well-celebrated scholar of comparative religion and mythology, Joseph Campbell, had said “Myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths.” NASA is part of a certain section of Indian public dreams. This is so because many of its accomplishments have been communicated well through US popular media, be it through news or movies. And of course, these have been consumed well here.
Indians are fascinated by NASA. Chinese, on the other hand, are observant of NASA. No, not because of the 2011 China Exclusion Policy of NASA; but more because Beijing very early realised the necessity to mimic NASA, both in terms of technology demonstrations, scientific discoveries and soft-power impact. Indeed, mimicry is the highest form of flattery, but China’s flattery is not restricted to soft power; China’s urban myths do not have NASA play the protagonist’s workplace den. China flatters America by mimicking its hard power astropolitical tactics. This mimicry makes Beijing dominate various initiatives through the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), an institution that was for long led by the US and the collective West.
The title of this article only intends to bring to your notice that India’s space diplomacy is working on a different chessboard plane that many do not comprehend. This is evident from PM Modi’s proactively offering to build a South Asia Satellite for the SAARC countries and now, very recently having offered a climate observation satellite for G20+1, which includes the African Union. China’s biggest multilateral in space is the Access to Space for All project it runs through the UNOOSA where it is giving access to junior affiliate countries to its current orbiting space station. Language and cultural barriers aside, scientists and universities across the world have availed the opportunity Beijing has raised. However, China’s magnanimity of giving access to its space station has not given it any soft power catapult internationally.
In a Global South that has a far younger population than the North, it is important to carry out spectacular science more often while less spectacular but meaningful science is done. Indeed a GSAT or a RISAT launch is crucial for India’s critical infrastructure, just like meaningful cinema. But it takes a masala blockbuster like Chandrayaan-3 to rake in for more meaningful cinema to be done during the lull phases.
PM Modi, who has stirred the Indian space program during his two tenures, understands the necessity of spectacular science for inspiring young India. That inspiration does not remain confined to those youngsters who want to make a career in space; it transcends across the entire spectrum of aspirations.
It is pretty clear that Indian astronauts are not likely to visit the Chinese Space Station, and getting a hands-on fully operating station is a must before India takes its station initiative in the 2030s.
So, what is New Delhi aiming to achieve by publicly accepting NASA Administrator Bill Nelson’s proposal of Indian astronauts going to the International Space Station – built by the US, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency – and on an American launch vehicle? New Delhi is aiming for a massive soft power blockbuster in the middle of the 2020s.
Besides the ongoing tests of the uncrewed Gaganyaan boilerplate, the Gaganyaan itself is at least a couple of years away from getting the space-proven tag. New Delhi may want to carry Indian astronauts on a space-proven vehicle first, which the Americans are offering, before testing the Gaganyaan vehicle. Be aware that if Indians really fly on the American vehicle, India will do a global reveal of the Indian Astronaut Corps, aiming for a massive international social media blitzkrieg around them. Add to that, if the American vehicle is that of SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy-Starliner combined, there would undoubtedly surpass the peak viewership of ~10 million of the first NASA-SpaceX launch that happened in 2020, taking SpaceX’s global popularity to a higher orbit. I am estimating that the viewership of ‘Indian astronauts on SpaceX’ in all likelihood will surpass the 1969 viewership of the Apollo 11 launch – the topmost for any space achievement.
India’s game plan in the space domain is very different from that of the US and China. India is not aiming to achieve ‘space dominance’ as the other two are. I do not agree when analysts compare the US-led Artemis Accords with the China-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) project. The ILRS is hardly but a standby multilateral for China, its real intent is to use the United Nations to garner junior affiliate countries to play on the turf it has laid. India is no one’s junior partner, nor is it any nation’s ally or affiliate. What did the NASA Administrator say in New Delhi? – He said India is a ‘great partner’ for NASA. What did US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan say earlier in 2023? – that the US looks forward to ‘deepening partnership’ with India in space exploration.
The cooperation in jointly developing hardware is a long-drawn process. What India and the US can do, for now, is ride-sharing and work on their biggest soft power assets. For India, its biggest assets are the astronauts, for the US it is the private space sector brands. The coming together of the two is perhaps the biggest soft-power project between India and the US that has ever happened. Its ramifications are much higher than the India-US nuclear deal as they transcend cyber, psychological, and economic dimensions. At times, it is more important to aggressively play the soft-power tactic than be adamant about hard-power. If the US and China are playing for the ‘alpha’ title in space, India is playing ‘sigma’ on the astropolitical chessboard. See subliminally the flight that PM Modi took on Tejas, donning the ‘g-suit’ – it is telling – he means business below and above the Karman Line. For now, in Joseph Campbell’s words, this is my private myth.