NASA Chief in India: Big Fillip to India-US Space Agenda 

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

NASA Chief in India: Big Fillip to India-US Space Agenda 

There appears to be a near perfect alignment of the stars for the Indian and U.S. space agencies to collaborate under. 

NASA Chief in India: Big Fillip to India-US Space Agenda 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson gives remarks after Indian Ambassador to the United States Taranjit Sandhu signed the Artemis Accords in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2023.

Credit: Flickr/ NASA

The head of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Bill Nelson, visited India last week. His trip appears to have gone very well. India-U.S. cooperation in outer space has been growing steadily over the last several years, and this visit will likely enhance it further.

In taking forward an idea first announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden during Modi’s state visit to the United States in June, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) chief Dr. S. Somnath confirmed that ISRO is working together with NASA to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) by end of 2024. Referring to a statement by the NASA head, Somnath confirmed that “that Indian astronauts will be flying to the international space station in an American vehicle.” This is remarkable and reflects the enormous confidence and comfort level between India and the U.S., especially between the two space agencies.

Acknowledging possible Indian sensitivities, Nelson clarified that the U.S. “will select astronauts as determined by ISRO, and NASA will not be making any selections here.” Somnath was quite upbeat, stating that the Indian astronauts will undergo “comprehensive training” at U.S. facilities. Besides the astronauts, the teams responsible for handling, medical support, and control operations will go through training at U.S. facilities. Nelson said that the two space agencies have established a joint working group focused on human spaceflight collaboration that will explore upcoming human space missions and other opportunities.

Meanwhile, India’s first human space mission, Gaganyaan, is getting ready for a take-off in early 2024. A press release from the Indian Department of Space stated that the Indian space agency is looking at the possibility of using NASA’s Hypervelocity Impact Test (HVIT) facility for validating Gaganyaan module Micrometeoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) protection shields.

India and the United States have also kept up with their broader discussions on civil space cooperation through established channels such as the India-U.S. Joint Working Group on Civil Space Cooperation (CSJWG), the latest iteration of which was held in Washington, D.C. in January 2023. 

Following a meeting between Nelson and Indian Union Minister for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh, the Indian minister said that India and the U.S. will be launching a joint microwave remote sensing satellite for Earth observation early next year. The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite will be launched on ISRO’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) in the first quarter of 2024, according to a statement from the Department of Space. Characterizing NISAR as a “great observatory,” Nelson added that there is much that India and the United States can do together. Developed at a cost of $1.5 billion, NISAR is reportedly “the most expensive Earth imaging satellite in the world.” 

NISAR is not a new project, but the materialization of this joint project is important for a couple of reasons. First, the data from the NISAR satellite will be enormously useful in studying “the land ecosystems, deformation of solid earth, mountain [and] polar cryosphere, sea ice and coastal oceans in regional to global scale.” The mission carries ISRO’s S-band and NASA’s L-band SAR and was integrated at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)/NASA and is currently being put through the testing phase with the satellite at the UR Rao Satellite Centre in Bangalore. Both JPL and NASA officials are participating in the process with ISRO. It is also significant for the fact that this is a demonstration of the renewed and energetic India-U.S. space cooperation, in line with the broader strategic partnerships that both New Delhi and Washington are pursuing in recent years. 

India and the U.S. are seeking to expand areas of cooperation beyond the traditional routes to engagement with commercial players. The Indian Department of Space press release said that the ISRO/Department of Space is engaged “in discussion with prominent U.S. industries (like Boeing, Blue Origin & Voyager) on specific items of cooperation and also to explore joint collaborations with Indian commercial entities.” This will be a game changer for the private sector in both countries as they have sought to leverage each other’s strengths and establish a more sustainable value chain.

India currently has a fairly small presence in the global space market at merely 2 percent of the total. India is keen to make significant improvement on this score. The discussions that ISRO and NASA are engaged in could be a useful pathway to do it. Following up on earlier discussions, the Department of Space press release noted that there is a concept note on the implementing arrangement that is being considered by both ISRO and NASA and that the two sides have “arrived at a mutually agreed draft and the same is processed for intra-Governmental approvals.” 

Nelson was hopeful about the two countries working together on a future Indian commercial space station by 2040. Responding to a question, Nelson mentioned that the U.S. stands ready to work with India, saying, “We expect by that time to have a commercial space station. I think India wants to have a commercial space station by 2040. If India wants us to collaborate with them, of course, we will be available. But that’s up to India.” He went on to add that a commercial space station “can open a lot of avenues for research including pharma research in zero gravity. If India wants, we can collaborate and share our experience.”

Even though Modi announced that India should build its own space station in about a decade, the challenges are enormous in terms of not only constructing a station in the first place but also maintaining it. Technologically and financially, this is a daunting task for ISRO but with the right partners, it could develop a small space station. The U.S. has the technological wherewithal as well as the experience in this regard. 

U.S. involvement in the Indian space program is not new. It was one of the critical players, along with France, as India began its space program but the two drifted apart owing mostly to Cold War geopolitics. As another Cold War takes shape, India and the U.S. appear to be on the same side and there is a near perfect alignment of the stars for the Indian and U.S. space agencies to collaborate under.