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What If NASA and ISRO Joined Forces? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
What could ISRO and NASA teamed up? Join us... and find out!

The Indian Space Research Organisation is rapidly emerging as the next space superpower. NASA is still the highest funded space agency on the planet by far... but what would happen if NASA and ISRO joined forces? The partnership would change the course of space history! And in this video we discover how!
Transcript

What If NASA and ISRO Joined Forces?


NASA still reigns as the world’s leading and best-funded space agency. But there are now others close behind it… and they’re getting closer! In recent years, ISRO (the Indian Space Research Organisation) has emerged as one of the most prominent and successful other agencies from within the world’s Big Six - with arguably only China’s space endeavours earning more headlines. But should our efforts toward space travel continue to remain so divided? Could we achieve more if we worked together, instead?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if NASA and ISRO joined forces?

In the exciting world of space travel, the race is always on. Agencies (and the nations that those agencies represent) strive to be the first to achieve any given milestone. And we saw this at its most extreme during the cold war era between NASA and the Soviet Space Program. While the Soviets beat NASA to many major space breakthroughs, NASA took the top prize when they landed the first astronauts on the moon in 1969.

Today, it’s more than fifty years since that giant leap for mankind, but have we really progressed as far as we might’ve hoped? In some ways, yes… in other ways, no. We have machines on Mars, we’ve sent probes into interstellar space, and the European Space Agency even managed to land a vehicle on a comet… but at the same time, the last major crewed mission that wasn’t to a low-Earth orbit space station was Apollo 17 in December 1972.

ISRO has high hopes of changing the course of our space future, however, with plenty of pioneering missions tabled for the next few years - including India’s first ever crewed mission, Gaganyaan. NASA, meanwhile, has plans for crewed trips to Mars, plus the resurgent Artemis Program which aims to get US astronauts back to the surface of the moon. If both world-leading organisations partnered up, then, what could we expect?

Really, the foundations have already been made. NASA and ISRO enjoy a positive, forward-thinking relationship as it is… capped off by the NASA-ISRO SAR project (otherwise known as NISAR). NISAR is described as a joint Earth-observing mission, with the S-A-R bit standing for Synthetic Aperture Radar. It’s a car-sized, all-weather satellite developed by NASA and ISRO together, and planned to circle the globe for at least three years after launch in 2023. In that time, it will produce some incredibly precise, radar maps and images of the land and sea, accurate to within a centimetre. The project will have many useful applications, including for charting erosion, measuring ice caps, and even (potentially) predicting when volcanoes are likely to erupt. NISAR hasn’t quite received the media attention that some other space missions have in the twenty-first century, but it could quickly become one of the most influential satellites in orbit so far… in terms of how we live our everyday lives, and how we view the world we live them in.

So, that’s a taste of what a NASA-ISRO partnership could produce. Huge missions with far-reaching, international consequences. Meanwhile, the US and India have also co-operated over Mars before now, signing documents in 2014 designed so that both sides can make best use out of their Mars orbiters - MAVEN (for NASA) and Mangalyaan (for ISRO). Both probes entered orbit around the Red Planet in September 2014, within two days of each other. And they’ve provided years’ worth of valuable data since. In this case, it’s more of a you-help-us-we’ll-help-you kind of a deal… but it shows, again, that NASA and ISRO are already on good terms.

Naturally, though, in an alternate world where the United States and India partnered for everything to do with space, we could expect a vastly different technological landscape. And perhaps we’d even be heading in a vastly different direction in terms of the future of humankind.

In history as we know it, ISRO was created just a month after NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landings. Its formation somewhat snuck under the radar, then, as the world’s attention was firmly on America, and the three astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. To some degree this was the shape of things to come, as America continued with its headline-making missions in the following years, with a global profile that NASA still enjoys… while India developed its space program more steadily, building on various successes to become the international force of today. From the outset, ISRO founder Vikram Sarabhai called for a measured approach to make best use of a limited budget. And Sarabhai’s ethos remains a cornerstone for Indian space research, with ISRO widely considered one of the most budget-efficient and reliable space agencies around. Were NASA and ISRO to partner up, then, we’d likely see these slightly different approaches merge into one - to the benefit of both sides.

Funding-wise, it’s clear that ISRO would stand to gain the most. In 2021, ISRO received around two billion dollars from the state, while NASA pocketed more than twenty-three billion dollars. Put them together and split the pot evenly, and that’s 12.5 billion each. So, in some ways, the question amounts to what could ISRO achieve if it had an extra ten billion dollars every year? And how would NASA operate if its budget was cut by almost fifty percent? Hopefully, this alternate version of the space industry would be about more than just money… and a NASA-ISRO merger would simply be spending what it had, together. On joint missions like NISAR, to make the world a better place. Ultimately, though, space is expensive… but it could be made less expensive if agencies partnered up.

With Mars, for example, both NASA and ISRO already have a good track record. NASA has landed various rovers, including Perseverance in 2021, whilst ISRO (with the Mangalyaan orbiter) was the first space agency to successfully reach Mars on its first attempt. What’s more, when Mangalyaan arrived, it did so at a fraction of the cost of the world’s other Mars missions - requiring about ten times less spend than MAVEN, for example, at about seventy-four million dollars. At the time, news reports from all over marvelled at how ISRO had turned a trip to Mars into a relatively cheap affair.

Imagine, then, if the financial outlay for all space missions could be cut so drastically. Imagine if we had a seeming super-agency, with NASA’s historic influence and profile plus ISRO’s famed costing and efficiency. Tied together by the incredible breadth of knowledge that both organisations bring. The landscape is already changing when it comes to budget thanks to the growing number of private space firms, serving to drive prices down. But ISRO has managed to gain success (despite spending less) for decades. It’s been way ahead of that particular trend.

That said, it hasn’t all been success. And perhaps the impact of a hypothetical merger is best shown through the Chandrayaan-2 mission. A planned lunar orbiter, lander and rover, it was launched in 2019 and drew raised eyebrows from some corners because its budget was said to be less than what was spent on the 2014 science fiction movie, “Interstellar”. In this instance, it seemed that America was spending more on Hollywood space than India was spending on the real thing. However, while that is incredibly impressive, the mission suffered one major problem when its Vikram lander - named after Vikram Sarabhai - crashed and was lost, reportedly due to a software malfunction. While the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter remains operational and has continued with its mission, so many of ISRO’s original objectives had to be scrapped.

Of course, the history of NASA is also full of success alongside failure… and it includes some high-profile tragedies, as well. It’s not as though a hypothetical merger would automatically solve all problems and ensure that nothing will ever go wrong again. Space is one of our greatest unknowns… and there will always be unforeseen problems and errors to contend with. Equally, while private firms are beginning to bring the cost down, and while India does have a spectacular budget record, space travel would still be expensive - even if NASA and ISRO partnered across the board, tomorrow. There’s no overnight fix to the funding issue.

But, more generally, the wider picture is a positive one. In the modern world, the space race is on but it’s perhaps not quite as competitive as it once was. There are more examples of joint, one-off missions between not just America and India but all the other major space powers, too. When you’re tackling something as massive, mysterious, and mind-boggling as space is, it just makes sense to work together. And that’s what would happen if NASA and ISRO joined forces.
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