Where China Leads, India Follows?
Image Credit: ISRO, Government of India

Where China Leads, India Follows?

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China this past week affirmed its status as one of the world’s three leading space powers by sending three astronauts, including its first woman astronaut, into space. On June 16, the powerful CZ-2F rocket lifted the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, carrying the astronauts; on June 18, the Shenzhou docked with the Tiangong lab module, where the astronauts will stay for several days. This was another milestone for China’s ambitious space program, creating fresh pride in the country.

Should India emulate China to become the world’s fourth country with such capabilities? This depends on whether India can actually develop such capabilities, at what cost, and for what benefit.

India’s space program has advanced incrementally over the past four decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, it built small satellites and light rockets, and since the mid-1990s, it has built heavier satellites and more powerful rockets. India thus has one of the world’s few space programs capable of launching satellites along with countries including the U. S., Russia, China and Japan. Its annual space expenditures of around $1.5 billion are far lower than the $3 billion to $5 billion each for Russia, China, Japan, and Europe, and several billions for the United States. Also, India conducts fewer launches than its space peers – in the past two years (2010 and 2011), it conducted six launches, comparable with Japan’s five, but less than Europe’s 11, China’s 34, the United States’ 31 and Russia’s 66.

Three of these countries have sent men into space – the United States and Russia began their manned space programs in the late 1960s, and China has done so in the past decade.

China began with four unmanned missions from 1999 to 2002, when the CZ-2F rocket carried the 7.8 ton Shenzhou spacecraft to low earth orbit (LEO). China then sent astronauts aboard the fifth (2003), sixth (2005), and seventh (2008) Shenzhous, which orbited the earth for three to four days. In September 2011, China launched the 8-ton Tiangong lab module, which will stay in space for a few years, and can support three-person crews for about ten days. In November 2011, China launched an unmanned Shenzhou to successfully test its docking with the Tiangong. The end result: on June 18, the ninth Shenzhou carrying three astronauts docked with the Tiangong.

The Tiangong is the stepping stone to a space station. By around 2020, China plans to build a 60-ton station, based on several Tiangong-like modules, which can support crews for many months. China thereby aims to emulate the International Space Station, which was developed primarily by the United States and Russia, with additional contributions from Europe, Japan, and Canada, although the Chinese station will be much smaller than the 440-ton international station.  

In purely technological terms, India could acquire capabilities similar to China’s, but it will take 15 to 20 years.

First, India will have to build a launcher to lift a spacecraft to LEO. Its reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has had more than a dozen successful flights, cannot lift a large payload. But the more powerful though unreliable Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which has failed in four of its seven flights, can lift a 5-ton spacecraft to LEO. The GSLV’s successor, the GSLV-Mk 3, which is expected to first fly in early 2013, can carry an 8-ton Shenzhou-like payload to LEO. By 2020-2025, if they prove their reliability after many consecutive successful flights, these rockets would be available for launching spacecraft.

Second, India will have to build the required spacecraft to ferry astronauts. In 2007, its 0.6 ton space recovery experiment tested the heat-shields needed for spacecraft re-entry to earth. India’s space agency has also conceptualized a 3 ton spacecraft that supports two astronauts for two-day space missions. Within a few years, India can build such a spacecraft, followed by a more capable 5 to 8 ton spacecraft. After three to four unmanned flights to test the technology, these spacecrafts can be available for manned missions.

China reportedly spent $2.5 billion for the first five Shenzhou flights. It will be just as, or even more, expensive for India. In 2007, India’s space agency projected that the first steps to manned space flight –  involving launchers, spacecraft, and an astronaut-training facility – will cost $2 billion over eight years; more substantial capabilities would cost $5 billion over several years. India’s $1.5 billion space budget, even if it grows at 10 percent to 15 percent each year, can’t support such expenditures. Consequently, India can only follow China’s manned space trajectory if it considerably increases its space budget – an outlay that can come only at the expense of other developmental priorities.

Another option is for India to reduce expenditures on its existing space activities and divert some of its space budget toward a manned program. However, this would reduce the scope of important current projects—India’s satellites have many economic developmental applications and also have military-strategic applications.

Manned space programs have no real economic or military applications. They mainly have scientific applications, because some useful scientific research is conducted in space (most significantly, on the International Space Station). The technologies used in a manned space program may also have industrial spinoffs. Still, the magnitude of these benefits is modest.

In the end, it would only be prudent for India to follow in China’s space footsteps if it can develop the required technologies, keep costs low and promise significant benefits. Since costs will be high and the benefits remain unclear, an alternative option for India is to partner with the United States, Russia and other states, and draw upon their proven heavy launchers, spacecrafts, and space labs. Thus, Indian astronauts could fly on U.S. and Russian spacecraft, and Indian spacecraft could be lifted by international launchers, while India simultaneously develops its own manned space program. For its space partners, India can bring cost-sharing and future co-production possibilities to the table.

In short, piggy-backing to space may be better for India than taking the slow, indigenous route to a manned space program.

Dinshaw Mistry is associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. He specializes in nuclear, missile, and space technology, and is author of Containing Missile Proliferation.’ This article was originally published by Gateway House here.

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