US-India ties set to go over the moon

WASHINGTON: On matters of space flights and exploration, India has put its cards on table for the United States to see – literally.

At a luncheon meeting on Wednesday hosted by a Washington DC think-tank on K-Street, better known as a hang-out for lobbyists than space buffs, the tables were all named after Indian space pioneers ā€“ Dhawan, Chandrasekhar, Sarabhai…

It was an audacious display by a country that till recently was banished from the US space business by a rigid sanctions regime that didn’t allow the transfer of a screw, let alone its drivers. But this week, a top-flight delegation led by a person who an US interlocutor described as India’s “Mr Space” motored into town for talks on India’s mission to the moon and beyond, including Washington’s involvement in the Chandrayan series of flights.

There will be two US instruments and experiments among the nearly dozen that will go onboard Chandrayan-I, but as India’s space chief Madhavan Nair pointed out repeatedly, that reflects only a pittance of the potential for space cooperation between the two countries. Even with regard to supply of components, tight sanctions that are only being relaxed slowly have kept it down to $ 15 million annually when there is scope for $ 100 million.

“The process is slow, I wish it were faster,” Nair complained at the event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledging the need for the US to protect intellectual property rights. But from a US businessman in the audience came remarks expressing resentment at the host country’s sanctions regime. It was a moment of sweet vindication.

In fact, so clued in are US space buffs about India’s giant leap in space exploration (which began as baby steps with US help) that Nair was examined closely on ISRO’s progress on developing a two-stage, two-orbit cryogenic engine that will engender a reusable space launcher. A technology demonstrator will be ready by 2012 and such a system will be operational by 2020-2025, Nair said boldly.

The Indian space program took off in the 1960s with considerable US help ā€“ something which New Delhi is now loath to admit. Not so Nair, who acknowledged that “when you were landing on the moon, we were still making pencil rockets.” He recalled listening to the Apollo moon landing on a cracking Voice of America broadcast while working on India’s nascent space program.

But much has changed in the four decades since; particularly after the US sanctions regime that began in the 1990s pushed India into indigenously developing a range of services that now enables it to launch Italian and Israeli satellites.

At the heart of the Indian confidence in its space program is the same theme that is attending Indian enterprise in everything from software services to manufacturing ā€“ low cost and high value. The Indian space program, Nair suggested, also has a Nano model to carry the world along. To date, the entire Indian space program has spent only about $ 2 billion to accomplish a wide range of feats. It has delivered $ 3 billion in value in the social sector alone, according to a study by a Chennai school of economics.

In contrast, NASA’s budget for 2007 alone – $ 16 billion. “The future of space lies in cooperation between countries, not competition,” smiled Nair as US space mavens strained their ears to hear him beyond his accent. “We look forward to greater cooperation with the United States.” No one missed the message.

Soon after the luncheon, Nair and his Indian space team trooped out to meet high officials at NASA and NOAA, knowing that the last remnants of the sanctions regime are falling by the way side, unable to resist India’s ‘Nano-isation’ of the world. On Thursday, they are scheduled to visit Caltech, the academic frontier of space studies, where they hope to clinch an agreement to collaborate on the ISRO-run Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology.

From all accounts, US-India space ties are poised to go over the moon.

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