In 2023, India became the fourth nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the Moon. The success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission helped establish India as a capable space power and bolstered its growing space ambitions.
The history of India's space program is in many ways the inverse of the history of the U.S. and Russia’s programs. While these superpowers were racing to outdo each other with symbolic, high-profile achievements that culminated in the Apollo Moon landings, India focused on the practical and immediate benefits of space.
That has recently started to change. Buoyed by the success of Chandrayaan-3 and a desire to compete with China, India has announced ambitious human spaceflight plans that include space stations and a Moon landing.
Gurbir Singh joined us on Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition on Jan. 5, 2024 to talk about the history and motivations behind India’s space program. Singh is the author of The Indian Space Programme: India's Incredible Journey from the Third World towards the First.
The original transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Casey Dreier: Gurbir Singh, thank you so much for joining us on Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition this month. I'm happy you're here.
Gurbir Singh: Well, thanks very much for reaching out. I'm really delighted to be here.
Casey Dreier: This is a big topic, so we might as well start at the beginning. Why did India start a space program in 1963?
Gurbir Singh: I use the launch of the very first rocket from Indian soil as a marker for the start of the program. That was a suborbital rocket launched from southern India. The payload was a small sodium capsule, which diffused at an altitude of about 150 kilometers. Watching how that payload dispersed was the experiment. That started what we today call the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO.
At that point India had been independent [from the British] for about a decade and a half, and the space program was part of the nation-building activities that were taking place. At that time, there were post-World War II developments in England and most of Europe, such as televisions, telephones, and commercial air flights. These were really becoming available to just about everybody.
The space age had started with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin's flight in 1961. The Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, really believed in science. He believed that the new nation of India, independent India, should be forged on what he called the scientific temper, the temperament of science. So he put science at the forefront, and that's really why space was almost inevitable.
Casey Dreier: What's interesting to me is that India didn’t create this as a Cold War competition. It wasn’t throwing its hat in to compete directly, or to establish itself as a regional power. There were internal and domestic reasons that it wanted to establish a space capability. Is that an accurate way to think of this?
Gurbir Singh: There is a very long tradition of science in Indian history. By the time India became independent, there were many successful Indian scientists of international repute, such as Vikram Sarabhai, who's considered as the father of the Indian space program. They were bright, gifted, and came from very successful industrial families. They had a lot of cash, and they also had contacts in high society. They knew the prime minister. So they were moving in the right circles. And I think that synergy helped to kickstart India in the direction it went.
Casey Dreier: You write that, unlike the space programs being established at the time in the U.S. and Soviet Union, India’s program from the outset was wholly non-military and built to meet the social needs of its huge population. It was really almost inwardly directed as a modernizing force rather than a demonstration of technological competition or global hegemony.
Gurbir Singh: Having lived under suppression, under the control of another nation, was seen as a national humiliation. India did not want to return to that. There was a desire for self-sufficiency rather than some sort of hegemony or sense of superiority over other countries. India is probably the only country with a space program which had entirely non-military foundations, although since then, it has grown to include military aspects.
Casey Dreier: For the first few decades, ISRO focused on servicing the Indian population. But then, in the 1990s, there’s a proposal to send the Chandrayaan-1 scientific mission to the Moon. What caused this new era of exploration to develop within ISRO?
Gurbir Singh: The Moon mission and many other ISRO space programs have been influenced by similar programs in China. In 2003, China had its first human spaceflight success. In 2007, they sent a spacecraft to the Moon. They have built their own space stations. So India has been following in China’s footsteps, just like what happened in the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
If China had not gone to the Moon, India wouldn't have gone to the Moon. There's this wonderful quote in a book by the Soviet engineer Boris Chertok where he says that if there hadn't been a Gagarin, there wouldn’t have been an Armstrong.
Casey Dreier: You write that in 2013, India went to Mars with the Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan because both Japan and China had tried and failed. After Mangalyaan, China followed up with its own Tianwen mission and successfully landed. Are we seeing an increase in this tit-for-tat competition?
Gurbir Singh: India went to Mars in 2013 because there was a Chinese spacecraft on board the Fobos-Grunt spacecraft launched by Russia in 2011. That spacecraft never left Earth orbit and failed. India realized that there would be an opportunity to launch a small mission to Mars in 2013, and get there before China.
The spacecraft only had five instruments, which was very stark. A few years after the ISRO chairman had served his time and wrote a book, he admitted that the whole reason why India went to Mars was because China failed, and the whole intention was to be able to say that India got to Mars before China.
We saw this behavior during the Cold War with Sputnik, Gagarin, and Valentina Tereshkova. Every country's trying to wave a flag and say, “we did this.” There's nothing politicians like more than that.
Casey Dreier: Let's talk about the Modi government's relationship to space. Would you characterize that as a natural extension of the previous government's approach to ISRO and space, or is there something different in their approach and embrace of ISRO and its ambitions?
Gurbir Singh: India has always treated ISRO as the goose that lays the golden eggs. It's something all political parties can benefit from, because apart from the fact that it allows the incumbent prime minister to wave India's flag at every ISRO success, ISRO actually is one of the more successful and competent departments of the government. It's traditionally been supported throughout India's history, regardless of the government.
In prime minister Modi's case, during the Chandrayaan-3 touchdown, he was in a live stream split screen. You could see the lander coming into land, and Modi was there waving a small Indian flag. Immediately after the soft landing of Chandrayaan-3, chairman Somanath got onto the pedestal and said, "India is on the Moon." And then he handed the microphone to the prime minister. I hadn't appreciated what an opportunity he would have to address an international audience. He made a 10-minute speech and said all the things that any politician would say.
Casey Dreier: You wrote in your 2017 book that the Modi government is a dynamic government with a nationalist and aggressive economic agenda, and it’s been positioning itself to use the Indian space program as an instrument for regional influence. Has that played out in the way that you thought it would?
Gurbir Singh: The desire for India to be a regional superpower hasn't quite worked out, mainly because India hoped to capture the launch market for nearby countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. But the growth in the international commercial space sector has meant that it's actually quite practical and cost-effective for these countries not to go to the nearest provider, India.
India’s cadence of launches is still very low. Its highest launch rate to Earth orbit or beyond has been seven launches in a year. This year alone, China has already achieved 47, and the U.S. more than 100. I think this has been driving the political changes that's opened up the commercial space sector in India.
The main thing that's been preoccupying ISRO is the Gaganyaan program. India has been developing a launch abort system, parachutes, and capsule recovery techniques. The recent signing of the Artemis Accords and the agreement to have an Indian astronaut go to the International Space Station with NASA will help accelerate the Gaganyaan program. There will be various deals of technology transfer and systems components being sold to India as a result of the collaborative arrangements that are now in place.
Casey Dreier: If the U.S. is increasingly seeing China as a competitive nation in space, then it starts to become a U.S. interest to support India as a backstop against regional influence from China.
Gurbir Singh: That's spot on, and really the reason why India signed the Artemis Accords.
The Artemis Accords would not have been as significant or profound if the International Lunar Research Station did not exist. The International Lunar Research Station is essentially an organization that China and Russia established, but now really China's running with it. The U.S. offered India a really good deal because they didn't want India to go to the International Lunar Research Station.
I think the main reason why India signed is because as part of this agreement, your president offered the Indian prime minister to come speak to a joint assembly of Congress. Any prime minister, especially one who has an election coming up next year, is not going to let that go. He had, I think, a four-day state visit to the U.S. and it's that package deal that made India sign the Artemis Accords.
Casey Dreier: In the past few years, ISRO has opened up to commercial space flight, started a serious effort for human spaceflight, announced an Indian space station, and is aiming for the Moon by 2040. This strikes me as a profound transformation of the role ISRO is going to play in Indian geopolitics.
It seems like the organization has a huge amount of capability to do things, but it's also struggling with capacity. Does that strike you as the biggest challenge facing ISRO and the Indian space community?
Gurbir Singh: I think a lack of capacity has been something that many previous ISRO chairs have identified, and that’s been the motivating factor for opening up the private space sector.
As a result of new space policies, about 200 startup space companies are now operating in India. I think this is where the future of Indian space activities lies: with ISRO helping startups and being supported by startups.
Casey Dreier: I saw that ISRO is facing a budget cut from the Modi government despite all these new ambitions being proposed. What does that tell you about the political commitment to the Indian space program?
Gurbir Singh: Generally, over the last decade or so, ISRO's budget has been increasing. It's at about one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half billion U.S. dollars annually. The Gaganyaan program itself, just as a standalone, multi-year program, has been awarded about one billion U.S. dollars. And there was some unspent budget from 2020 and 2021, when not much happened. The Indian economy is doing really well relative to many other Western countries. Economic growth this coming year should lead to a budget increase in the next year.
Casey Dreier: Gurbir Singh is the author of The Indian Space Programme, a book that I really enjoyed and highly recommend to anyone fascinated by this topic. Gurbir, how can people find you online?
Casey Dreier: Thank you so much for being here this month. I hope to have you back in the future.
Gurbir Singh: Great talking to you.