The Lunar Race Between India and Russia: What’s at Stake?

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The Lunar Race Between India and Russia: What’s at Stake?

Later this month, the two nations will each attempt to make a soft landing on the South Pole of the Moon. The missions will have implications for the two rival blocs now forming in space.

The Lunar Race Between India and Russia: What’s at Stake?

Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan 3 travels after it was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, July 14, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

The end of August is going to be a critical time for space policy, geopolitics, and astropolitics. Later this month, India and Russia will separately attempt the first-ever soft landing on the South Pole of the Moon.

All other lunar probes by the United States, the erstwhile Soviet Union, and China have either landed on the near side or the far side of the Moon, but never on the Moon’s South Pole. India attempted to land on the South Pole of the Moon in 2019 but lost contact with the lander in the last few seconds; it was later discovered that the Chandrayaan 2 lander had a hard landing and did not survive the crash.

Now India is trying again. Its Chandrayaan 3 mission launched on July 14 and entered lunar orbit on August 5. It is executing a series of lunar maneuvers to slow it down for the soft landing scheduled for August 23.

Russia’s Luna 25 that launched on August 11. Despite launching later than India’s mission, it entered lunar orbit on August 16, within a much shorter time period than the Indian mission. Russia aims to soft land its lunar probe on August 21, a few days earlier than Chandrayaan 3.

The reason the Indian lunar probe is taking more time has to do with cost efficiency, weight and fuel. The Chandrayaan 3 mission weighs 3,900 kilograms; the Luna 25 weighs 1, 700 kilomgrams and can travel faster due to its lighter weight. In addition, Chandrayaan 3 took a circuitous route to the Moon due to its lower fuel carrying capacity compared to the Russian probe, which took a direct route to the Moon.

Japan’s ispace mission also took a rather circuitous route to the Moon earlier this year for similar fuel efficiency reasons.

What Is at Stake?

As both probes prepare for their soft landing attempts, the stakes are high.

First, both India and Russia have identified the Moon as a strategic location in space as part of their cislunar strategy. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has been interested in the Moon for a very long time, for purposes of the discovery of Helium 3 (crucial for rocket fuel and nuclear fusion), confirming the frozen ice on the Lunar South Pole, as was discovered by a NASA Mineralogy Mapper aboard the Chandrayaan 1 mission in 2008, and studying the South Pole landscape for future missions. The ISRO believes that the Moon could be a pitstop for deep-space probes, thanks to its resources, which include water-ice, silicon, titanium, and aluminum.

Russia, on the other hand, has institutional memory of the Soviet Union landing on the lunar near side and bringing back lunar samples to Earth. In 1976, the Luna 24 was the last Soviet probe to land successfully on the Moon and bring back lunar samples. Russia today views the Moon as a strategic enabler of its space program and announced a long-term plan for the Moon in 2018, backed by a three-phase plan for lunar base construction between 2025 and 2040.

The first stage of Russia’s long-term lunar development plan, announced in 2020, is the lunar orbiter module (2025), the second phase is the construction of a lunar base (2025-2034), and the third phase (2040) is the construction of an “integrated manned moon exploration system.” The Luna 25, despite delays, has launched ahead of that plan as part of preparation for the activation of that phased Russian cislunar plan.

Second, while Roscosmos has reassured India that its lunar probe will not get in the way of India’s Chandrayaan 3 mission, and the ISRO has tweeted its congratulations for the Luna 25 launch, there is an element of direct competition. If Russia lands first (as is currently scheduled to happen), it will be the first nation to soft-land on the lunar South Pole, taking that glory away from India. India did attempt to land on the South Pole in 2019, and this has been a long-term ambition. So, despite the optics of reassurance, there is that aspect of geopolitical and astropolitical ambition and competition for both.

Third, while India and Russia have historically collaborated in their space program, India broke camp in June this year when it signed the U.S.-led Artemis Accords – the same accords that have been heavily criticized by Russia as part of an alleged U.S. effort to colonize the Moon. By joining the Artemis Accords, India punctured the Russian narrative of U.S. lunar colonization. The U.S.-led efforts received a legitimacy boost simply by India joining in, given its historical experience of British colonization.

Plus, Indian astronauts, who have historically trained at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, will now train at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, as per a U.S.-India agreement. India and the U.S. have also agreed to send a joint mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2024, right at a time when Russia has stated that it will leave the ISS.

Russia, on the other hand, joined the China-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in 2021, which aims to build a research base on the Moon by 2036. As is the case for India and the U.S., space cooperation is one part of a larger convergence between China and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China during the Beijing Winter Olympics, right before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia this year and penned an op-ed on how China and Russia are the two most important major powers today.

The China-Russia strategic convergence is occurring at a time when China is asserting its military presence in disputed territories by crossing over to the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control and militarily engaging with Indian border troops. Twenty Indian military personnel lost their lives in the 2020 Galwan Valley clash, and border skirmishes have continued to the present.

While Russia is a big arms exporter to India, recent years have witnessed India strategically diversifying its weapons purchases, to include Rafale aircraft from France, for instance. The strategic consequence of the converging China-Russia relationship, coupled with military clashes between China and India during the same period, have strategic implications for India’s grand strategic posture in space, particularly the choice of who it will partner with. India intends to send a message of its changing foreign policy posture and confidence as a rising Asian power in space and elsewhere.

Finally, both missions have direct consequences for space capacity and regime legitimacy. If India succeeds in landing on the lunar South Pole, this would be the first successful landing of an Artemis partner, preceding even NASA’s delayed Commercial Lunar Payload Service landing.  Russia, on the other hand, as stated earlier, is a member of the China-led ILRS. If both Russia and India succeed in landing on the South Pole, it implies both strategic alignments have the capacity to access this strategically important area of the Moon, and can begin work to extract and secure water, which can be turned into fuel and oxygen to support future industry and human settlement.

Russia is currently facing enormous Western sanctions, with its space program allegedly suffering from the cancellation of its joint lunar probes with Europe. As Putin battles questions of regime legitimacy, a successful South Pole Moon landing will send a signal to the world – and to partners like China – that Russia is a force to reckon with when it comes to space power. For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, going into an election year in 2024, a successful lunar landing by India as the first Artemis signatory will add to his own credibility and electability, and he will use it as an election message.

There is a lot hanging in the balance here, and next week is the Moon’s time to shine. Two political forces will be at play: a democratic lunar probe (India) versus an authoritarian one (Russia). Successful landing by either will entrench those competitive alignments, further adding to real-time operational legitimacy for two alternative space orders we see in the making. It is indeed Russia’s game to lose, as I argued in a previous Wall Street Journal piece.