Ambition moves east ...

It’s ambitious. 

Really ambitious. 

If it works they will be only the third sovereign nation and the fourth space agency to send a probe to another planet.  An incredible feat for a nation that has many domestic and economic issues to deal with as well. 

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MON) also known as Mangalyaan is for so many exciting and inspirational.  This little craft that blasted off from Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday is primarily going to be looking at the Martian Atmosphere and in particular will be looking into those elusive methane plumes and attempt to uncover whether they exist and what their potential origin may be if they do, it could be geological, it could be life, it might not be there at all.

india-mars-orbiter-mission-liftoff-2Ambition lifts off in India
Credit: Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

Great for science and if it finds methane it will be a coup for India and therein lies another side to this mission.  Many see this 1,350 kg spaceship as part of a wider narrative in space exploration that is being dubbed the ‘new space race’.

The 1960s always seem like an exciting time.  I think socially I am less enamoured with them than some, for many it was an oppressive and difficult period, but it was an era when anything seemed possible and dreams that filled the pages of 1950s science fiction became everyday reality; man walked on the moon and airliners went supersonic.  There was an energy, a drive, a belief. 

AS11-40-5875HReditParadise Found?
Credit: NASA

But what was behind it?  Were people, engineers, politicians more energetic, more inspired in the 1960s?  It’s possible, they were the generation that lived through World War II, many left that nightmare behind by building on better dreams.  But there is a drive we cannot ignore, a more cynical take on some of humankind’s greatest achievements.  They were part of a war, one with few direct battles and combat, a war fought with words and ideologies, a war fought by the flexing of technological prowess.  I am of course talking about the Cold War.

Sputnik, Gagarin, Apollo, even Concorde were grand examples of the intense rivalry between East and West that gripped the world in the middle of the 20th Century.  Would we have had Armstrong’s giant leap without the ideological drive behind America’s Apollo program and it’s desperate need to prove to the world that American technology was superior to Soviet Russia’s?  I like to think we would have, but I know that in reality it would have been unlikely.  Governments rarely commit open cheques that will run into billions and create a workforce of almost half a million without some great political return and winning the Cold War was, in the 1960s, the ultimate return.  The speed with which the US lost interest in the program once it’s propaganda value had been extracted and domestic issues loomed large demonstrates how fragile the motivation behind Apollo really was.

vietnam-war-soldiersParadise Lost?
Credit: CNN

Now in 2013 we live in a very different world.  American astronauts travel to space on Russian rockets, in a capsule built as Apollo’s rival.  Private companies vie for Washington’s Space dollars and Europe launches half the world’s satellites.  But there is something else happening, a new space race is evolving and it’s happening far away from Western eyes and media reports in Asia.

India’s Mars mission is fantastic but it is also a shot in a developing Cold War between the emerging Super-powers of what the West has often referred to disparagingly as the “far east”.  Across Asia, nations are emerging with ambitions tied to industrial and political goals.  At it’s heart are ancient rivalries – India Vs China, China Vs Japan, Japan and China Vs Korea.  Countries with burgeoning technological prowess and expanding populations that are asserting themselves on a world stage and looking to dominate a region, capture markets and leverage influence - space is one arena where nations can see there ambition writ large.

chinese-astronautsDestination Moon?
Credit: Reuters

Asian Space programs are of course not a recent phenomenon with India, Japan and China having programs that date back many decades, but it is in the last few years that we have seen this rivalry intensify and these nations launch grand projects.  The Japanese Lunar exploration program, China’s increasingly confident manned program and of course India venturing to other worlds (Venus is next in 2015). 

Will this be the spur for great adventures in the mould of Apollo? Will all this activity and challenge awaken the old rivalries of the US and Russia?  Or will it fizzle out as budgets swell and the inevitable accidents happen?  Space is after all a dangerous and expensive business.  Will we see the end result being greater international cooperation as every nation realises that in the last Space is not something you can afford to do alone, certainly not for very long.

For the moment though we should probably get used to the most interesting space headlines coming from Beijing and Delhi, rather than Washington and Moscow.