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Will China, India rivalry be start of a new space race?

Publication Date : 20-01-2014


Freeze-dried food, athletic shoes, smoke detectors and laptop computers. A rather eclectic list, but all products that have one thing in common: they were created directly for, or inspired by, the “Space Race” between the US and USSR. As China touts its recent successful landing of a rover on the moon and India's probe speeds toward Mars, we are perhaps entering a second Space Race era — with all the benefits and potential dangers of the first one.

From the moment the Soviet Union put Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957, the race was on between it and the US, each one fearing that falling behind in the realm of spaceflight would prove disastrous. While the USSR beat the US in several key early milestones — the first man in space, the first spacewalk — the culmination of this era came with America's Apollo programme; when man first set foot on the moon.

Following this victory, however, it seems as if the two programmes have slowed their rate of advance. The Space Shuttle, first launched in 1981, was NASA's main — and only — orbital vehicle up until its retirement in 2011. Its replacement, the Orion, is not slated to enter service until 2020. And while the past few decades have seen some important milestones in the exploration of space, such as the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), few have managed, at least in the Western world, to capture the imagination of the planet like the original space race did.

Not so in other parts of the world. Both India and China have been pushing ahead on their own. In 2003, China joined the US and Russia to become one of only three nations to have independently put a person into orbit.

Since that first mission, China has launched four manned missions, in addition to a temporary space station. A second temporary space laboratory is planned for 2015, with a permanent orbital installation to come “before 2020”. The government has stated that a mission to the moon is an objective, with a tentative date of 2025.

India, having not yet achieved manned spaceflight, is still determined not to be outdone by its neighbour and sometimes-rival. Its space programme grabbed headlines in November with the successful launch of an unmanned mission to Mars. The Mangalyaan probe is currently expected to arrive at Mars in September of this year. While the Indian space programme's resources are slightly more limited than China's, India still has big plans for the future, including its own manned missions.

With NASA all but out of the manned spaceflight game, choosing to focus on operations aboard the ISS and needing to rely on Russia for transport, China and India seem to be the only games in town. But does all this mean a new Space Race era is beginning? Maybe ... but probably not. There are several key differences between the relationship between India and China, as compared to the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union.

While relations between the two Asian giants have been difficult in the past — border disputes have triggered small-scale armed conflicts in the past — it is nothing compared to the ideological and geopolitical divides that separated the Eastern and Western blocs during the Cold War. While recent border spats have made the headlines, Earth's two most populous states are not and haven't been for some time poised on a hair-trigger to release nuclear Armageddon. And with their growing economic ties, any hostilities put business at risk; a powerful deterrent.

While space competition can drive a country to achieve great things, the possibility that space could become a military battleground is ever-present. The US and USSR did indeed start down this road, before cooler heads prevailed. In 1967, the so-called “Outer Space Treaty” was signed, effectively banning the use of weapons of mass destruction in space. Both China and India are signatories.

Only time will tell if the friendly space rivalry between India and China will develop into a full-blown space race, and whether it will drive humanity forward as much as the Cold War-era one did. But with the United States descending into political gridlock and scientific stagnation, and Russia content to simply run a taxi service to the ISS, one thing is certain: those of us who believe that humanity's future lies out there will be keeping a close eye on Asia.


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