Ruminations on the ‘great Asian space race’

Copyright: Flickr / NASA

Speed read

  • India launched its own satellite to Mars in September 2014, sparking celebration
  • Competition is growing among Asia-Pacific nations to rack up space achievements
  • Asian collaboration on space exploration is unlikely because of national ambitions

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[SEOUL] Pallava Bagla put on a large white hat that made him look like a pastry chef. Bagla is a senior journalist at New Delhi Television, and he was wearing the hat as a security protocol for a visit to an immaculately clean space laboratory.

Bagla was at the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul for a panel discussion about the “great Asian space race” and he showed a television segment he made last year on India’s ambitions to put the first-ever satellite in orbit around Mars. After explaining the project to the camera, he turned around and sniffed the satellite, which was wrapped in what looked like gold foil.

“It smells like India,” he declared proudly.

The satellite made it to Mars in September, sparking celebration among Indian scientists and ordinary citizens. It is still there, orbiting the red planet and collecting reams of scientific data.

But overall, Bagla observes, India’s space programme still lags far behind China’s.

The Asian space race discussion comes at a time when competition is growing between China, India, Japan and other Asia-Pacific nations to rack up space-related achievements. Some space-watchers worry — as many did during the Cold War space race between Russia and the United States — about the Asian race's potential military dimensions.

But Asia's race is very different from the US-Soviet one, says Clara Moskowitz, an editor at the magazine Scientific American and a member of this week's panel: In the 1960s everyone seemed to agree that the main goal for both sides was getting to the moon, but today there are a variety of space-related goals.

China seems keen to put an astronaut on the moon, Moskowitz says, and Mars is the “object looming on the horizon for everyone”.

But collaboration between Asian countries on space exploration is unlikely for now because space achievements are still so entwined with national prestige, she adds.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.