In India as in other countries, the Muslim faithful wait for a glimpse of the moon to start their Eid al-Fitr celebrations. At the end of October, it will be the country’s scientific community looking moonward. During a narrow temporal window beginning October 22, the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh plans to launch the Chandrayaan-I, the country’s first moon mission. (“Chandrayaan” means “trip to the moon” in Hindi.) If the weather plays spoilsport, the launch could be postponed until December.

Critics of the country’s space program would prefer that the unmanned launch be postponed indefinitely. Their complaints? First, that India is just reinventing the wheel: The moon mission proposes to do what other countries already have done. Second, that India is a poor country. Aren’t there many other ways to put the funding the launch requires — Rs. 386 crore (US$80 million) — to better use?

“The kind of money involved in a moon mission is very high compared to the benefits,” says Vasant Natarajan, associate professor in the physics department at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “I think this money could be better spent on other things.” India is generally viewed “as a Third World, poverty-stricken country,” he notes. “If India puts a spacecraft into orbit [the perception will be] that India can do all this high-tech stuff but cannot provide its citizens with even basic necessities, and that there are people dying on the streets. This image is not going to change because of the moon mission.”

The negative voices are every bit as strident abroad. According to The Times of London, “Critics say it is a waste of money for a country where 800 million out of a population of 1.1 billion live on less than US$2 a day, and where child malnutrition is on a par with that of sub-Saharan Africa.”

“It’s unquestionably true that India faces other tremendously important public policy challenges,” says Jeremy Tobacman, Wharton professor of business and public policy who conducts research on the Indian agricultural sector, behavioral economics and development. “This might not be the best priority for India now.”

Delhi’s political class and parts of the establishment directly involved in the space effort conversely say that the moon mission is testimony to India’s scientific prowess, and that some of the benefits will be immediate. The news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) quotes an unnamed Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) official as saying: “With China forging ahead in the space field, India cannot lag behind and miss the bus. Moreover, some kind of colonization of the moon cannot be ruled out in the coming decades. We have to have our presence.”

But there is more to all this than chest thumping. “[The launch] will help India move a few notches up in the pecking order of nations,” says Delhi-based political commentator Sumit Mitra. “It may be an indirect gain, but it is important considering that in the next 20 to 25 years we plan to sit at the high table with the big powers.”

Since 1974, when it carried out a nuclear test at Pokhran, India has been a pariah in high-tech cooperation, particularly in areas such as space that could be used for missile technology. But Tobacman notes that international cooperation is a key ingredient in space research. “Most of the U.S. manned space program is focused on the international space station, which is a multinational collaboration, particularly with Russia,” he says.

India’s planned moon mission includes payloads (additional instruments) from other international space agencies, Tobacman notes. “Presumably, international space agencies are also contributing funding to accomplish this mission and it is achieving many of the objectives of international cooperation in space research.”

History Revisited

Mitra cares little about the temporary glory that will come with sending a rocket to the moon. Rather, he talks about opportunity cost, and about India having missed out too often. “I think it is good that India is coming out of its centuries of technological backwardness and taking part in an international lunar mission…. It will be suicidal if we remain indifferent to explorations and pass up another opportunity.”

Though the technology for the mission is Indian, several nations have been involved. The proposal first arose in a meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1999, according to ISRO. A national lunar mission task force was constituted a few years later, and the Union government approved the project in November 2003. In July 2005, ISRO and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement to include European instruments onboard. In May 2006, a similar agreement was reached with NASA. Chandrayaan will carry as many as 11 payloads — five from India, three from the ESA, one from the Bulgarian Space Agency and two from NASA.

“This will be our first step toward a manned mission to the moon,” Chandrayaan project chief M. Annadurai told the Business Standard recently. According to a report by the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, “The mission can serve as a test-bed for future missions that could be undertaken by India to explore the outer world in the new millennium, thus providing challenging opportunities to the younger generation of scientists.”

In layman’s terms, according to ISRO, the Chandrayaan mission is aimed at high-resolution remote sensing of the moon. The specific scientific objectives are to “prepare a three-dimensional atlas of both the near and the far side of the moon” and “to conduct chemical and mineralogical mapping of the entire lunar surface for distribution of elements.”

The 1,304-kilogram spacecraft will be launched by ISRO’s highly successful polar satellite launch vehicle. By the time it reaches its 100-kilometer polar orbit of the moon, which it is scheduled to maintain for two years, the weight will have come down to 590 kilograms. The NASA contribution to the payload includes the Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center, and the Moon Mineralogy Mapper from Brown University and the California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A Race to Space?

All this may not mean much to the man on the street in Mumbai. But a question keeps surfacing: Is India being needlessly drawn into a space race?

If a space race indeed is occurring, China is far ahead of other Asian countries. Its first satellite, Dongfanghong-I, was launched in April 1970. China’s entry into manned space flight was heralded by the unmanned Shenzhou-1 in November 1999. Shenzhou-5 in October 2003 sent an astronaut into space for more than 21 hours. In 2007, the country celebrated its first space walk.

China’s moon focus began with the successful launch in October 2007 of the lunar orbiter Chang’e-1. Its objectives are to map the moon and probe for useful elements. Its lifespan is more than a year. The China National Space Administration has also announced plans to send robotic explorers to the moon by 2020 and manned missions a few years later. But with NASA’s US$100 billion proposal to get back to the moon by 2018, the Chinese effort could speed up. In September, NASA officials unveiled the latest designs for the Ares V rocket and Altair moon lander in Washington, D.C. These are part of a larger Mars project, where the moon program is being used as a stress test.

Japan got off the starting block earlier, and then apparently lost drive. It launched the Oshumi-1 satellite in 1970. In the 1990s, its H2 rocket didn’t perform to expectations. That and China’s growing achievements led to the reorganization of Japan’s space bodies. In October 2003, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, the National Aerospace Laboratory and the National Space Development Agency were merged into JAXA — the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

JAXA has delivered. Kaguya, the Selenological and Engineering Explorer, was launched in September 2007 and is in a polar orbit of the moon. Its objectives, which may sound familiar, are: “To obtain scientific data of the lunar origin and evolution and to develop the technology for future lunar exploration.” JAXA plans its first manned mission to the moon in 2020.

Even smaller South Korea has ambitions. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute has been working with the Russians for satellite launch technology. It, too, has a moon mission slated for 2020. The objective: the “launch of a satellite for moon exploration by a Korean-developed launch vehicle.”

Earthly Benefits

Everyone seems to be headed for the moon. Why not? asks Mitra. “Even if there is a ‘space race’ in Asia, it is good for all the participants, provided it does not turn into a race for obtaining Star Wars weapons,” he says. “Man’s knowledge of the world increased phenomenally because of the ‘sea race’ between Arabs and Europeans in the previous millennium.”

ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair, however, disagrees that a space race exists. “Our priorities have been in providing societal services, based on our space assets,” he told the news agency PTI recently. “We have been concentrating on earth observation and communication areas. Launch vehicles which are appropriate for these missions have been developed. We have developed technologies and systems required for national development. Now, since we have some breathing time, we are concentrating on planetary exploration and activities that are supposed to be taken up the next decade. In that context, we are taking up the proposals for the manned mission.”

The U.K.-based New Scientist, a leading science and technology news magazine, framed the objectives in a 2005 article: “But why is India, a country that still has so many development problems on the ground, aiming for the heavens? To Indian scientists, the question is not only patronizing of their scientific aspirations, it betrays an ignorance of the Indian space program’s greater purpose and successes against the odds…. Take, for example, India’s six remote-sensing satellites — the largest such constellation in the world. These monitor the country’s land and coastal waters so that scientists can advise rural communities on the location of aquifers and where to find watercourses, suggest to fishermen when to set sail for the best catch, and warn coastal communities of imminent storms. India’s seven communication satellites, the biggest civilian system in the Asia-Pacific region, now reach some of the remotest corners of the country, providing television coverage to 90% of the population. The system is also being used to extend remote health-care services and education to the rural poor.”

Natarajan, of the Indian Institute of Science, agrees that the mission could produce such “earthly” benefits. “But the cost-benefit equation needs to be clear,” he says.

A quantitative cost-benefit analysis may not be possible where social goals are involved. But India’s space program has a commercial end, too. ISRO’s marketing arm is Antrix Corp., a registered for-profit company. Antrix has been involved in commercial launches since May 1999, when it successfully sent into space Korean and German satellites as piggyback payloads onboard the polar satellite launch vehicle PSLV-C2. (Chandrayaan is being launched on PSLV-C11.) Antrix offers a range of products and services including Indian remote sensing hardware and software, transponder leasing, launch services, mission support, ground systems, spacecraft testing, and training and consultancy.

Sending up a satellite through Antrix and ISRO is much cheaper than using a U.S., Russian or French launch vehicle. Indians are known for their “frugal engineering.” This is one of the reasons that every global automaker that wants to make a cheap car — following in the footsteps of Tata Motors’ Nano — is setting up shop in India. The frugal engineering also responds to an objection: Is too much money being spent on the space program? “The money being spent on Chandrayaan is insignificant in relation to the gains,” says Mitra.

ISRO, too, dismisses criticisms about cost. “The cost of the moon mission is less than US$80 million, which is just 10% of the annual budget of ISRO spread over many years,” ISRO spokesman S. Satish told PTI. This cost includes US$20 million for the establishment of the Indian Deep Space Network at Byalalu, near Bangalore, which will also serve future satellites.

In the capital Delhi, meanwhile, there is little advance cheering. One reason could be a number of failures in ISRO’s early track record. The celebrations will probably start once the moon is in Chandrayaan’s viewfinder.

“There is not much excitement in the capital’s media because the moon, as a target for exploration, is generally regarded as old hat,” says Mitra. “But it is not correct that the political class has overlooked the importance of India participating in the lunar missions. Chandrayaan-ll has recently received the Union Cabinet’s sanction.”

In September, a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh approved a budget of Rs. 425 crore (US$88 million) for a Chandrayaan-II Indo-Russian joint project, which aims to land a rover on the moon. The principal objective of the mission is “in situ chemical analysis and resource exploration.” That should be in 2011-2012. A Mars mission is planned for 2013 and a manned space mission by 2014.