DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTY, SENIOR JOURNALIST
Metaphorically speaking, the depth of India and the US space partnership is comparable with the vastness of the SPACE—dynamic and ever-expanding. From the moon to MARS, deep-space and planetary explorations today there is a well defined collaborative architecture in place. This collaboration between the world’s two largest and oldest democracies arches over the larger strategic and civilian space interests making it one of the enduring relationships that have stood the test of time.
India and the US cooperation in Space sciences and technology have grown and flowered through over four decades of working together. As the US space programme entered four years of its operations in 1962, India became one of the first partner countries of NASA. In the same year, India established the first Equatorial Rocket Launching Station at Thumba on the Arabian Sea coast.
There is a long legacy of this space partnership. In 1975-1976, NASA and ISRO conducted the Satellite Instrumental Television Experiment, known as SITE. The SITE programme enabled NASA to beam educational programmes via television sets to over two thousand remote Indian villages through its ATS-6 satellite. In the 1980s, the US helped India to launch its own satellite telecommunications system. And, in 1982 and 1990, the US launched Indian satellites atop American rockets. Again in 1983, a US space shuttle had put in orbit an Indian satellite.
The positive role being played by the leadership of the two countries has greatly contributed to enhancing the space partnership. In the wake of a meeting between the late prime minister of India Atal Behari Vajpayee and then US President George W Bush on November 21, 2001, the first dialogue on space cooperation between Isro and the US State Department was held in October 2002. A High Technology Cooperation Group or HTCG was set up a month later in the same year to take the process forward. Next Steps in Strategic Partnership has been formulated envisaging a series of reciprocal measures to further strengthen this cooperation.
The streak of collaborative missions went on but for a brief lull and post 9/11, it again began picking up steam to explore new areas of space cooperation. There has been no looking back for the two space agencies of the two countries, thereafter.
Today there is an agreement in place for the Indian and US space agencies to explore the moon together. India and the United States have also set up a Mars Working Group to “identify and implement goals that NASA and ISRO share for Mars exploration, particularly coordinated observations and science analysis between the US and Indian Mars orbiters MAVEN and MOM respectively.’ This is besides NASA’s other Mars craft.
The Mars working group is also exploring possibilities of future joint missions to Mars. Besides, the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission is slated to launch in 2022. The ambitious mission seeks to make global measurements of the causes and consequences of a variety of land surface changes on Earth. NISAR will be the first satellite mission to use two different radar frequencies (L-band and S-band) to measure changes in the planet’s surface less than a centimetre across.
The partnership has since yielded far-reaching scientific outcomes. Isro’s maiden mission to the Moon, the Chandrayaan-1, was instrumental in the ISRO-NASA joint discovery of water molecules on the moon surface. This has been an achievement that could not be equalled by any other previous missions. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provided navigation and communication support to India’s ambitious Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).
Despite expanding space cooperation, there are still new areas of cooperation to be explored by the two countries for the betterment of their respective peoples. In 2011 former Indian President A P J Kalam had mooted a joint space-based solar power development programme. An idea of orbital power stations for the energy security of the two countries was proposed by former US President Donald Trump. There are numerous other sectors particularly space defence where two countries can further deepen their cooperation.
India and the US are already working on the concept of International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The aim is to develop space fusion power and propulsion systems powerful enough to ‘reach for the stars’. No doubt, given their present state of deep and long term engagements in space cooperation, if India and the US can plan for the moon and Mars then reaching out to stars is just a matter of time. Both can dare mighty things, together. Let there be no doubt about it.