3 Ways That NASA Is Falling Behind India | Unveiled

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In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the rise and rise of ISRO - the Indian Space Research Organisation! For decades, NASA has lit the way for humans in space, with the American Space Program only seriously challenged by the Soviet Union... but, now, India is starting to take center stage!

3 Ways That NASA is Falling Behind India

For decades, America has lit the way when it comes to space travel. And NASA still stands as the world’s leading space agency, fronting (as it does) an endless series of ground-breaking missions. However, where once it was just the Soviet Union (or Russia) who could seriously rival the US, there are now other organizations and nations that are threatening to steal the initiative. And India is one of the major new forces.

So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re exploring three ways that NASA is falling behind the Indian space agency, ISRO.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (or ISRO) has a shorter history than NASA’s, although not by much. ISRO was formed in August 1969, just a few days after NASA’s most famous chapter, the Apollo 11 moon landings. NASA itself, though, had only been formed just eleven years before that, in July 1958, so it’s not as though India has ever been too far behind America in terms of time. ISRO has always fallen short to NASA, however, in terms of budget, with its funds continually casting well short of the cash that NASA has always had to spend. But no matter. This reality has always been known, and actually embraced by ISRO. In the 1960s, the renowned scientist, Vikram Sarabhai, was a key figure in getting ISRO set up… and he referred to it, during a speech in 1968, saying that; “we do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the explorations of the moon or the planets or manned space flight”… but continuing that “we (ISRO) are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role… we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies”. ISRO positioned itself as something of an underdog from the very beginning. But, in the twenty-first century, that underdog tag is falling off, as ISRO is beginning to not just match NASA, but in some ways better it.

Firstly, collaborations. Now, NASA does routinely collaborate with other agencies and private space firms, too, particularly in the modern era… but India has built much of its entire model around definitely joint projects. Whereas, at times, NASA has been accused of being quite secretive with its goals and operations, ISRO has generally been seen as open from the beginning. On its website, ISRO says that; “India has always recognized that space has dimension beyond national considerations, which can only be addressed along with international partners”, and it’s backed that sentiment up with some key moments - including the Chandrayaan-1 and SARAL missions. As it was the country’s first major mission to the moon, the Chandrayaan-1 probe was something of a watershed moment for India in space, launched in 2008… but ISRO got it off the ground by working effectively with other space agencies, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. Meanwhile, SARAL is an example of an ongoing Earth monitoring mission (looking specifically at the oceans) that’s come about thanks to teamwork between ISRO and the French National Centre for Space Studies. Further back, the first ever Indian satellite - Aryabhata, in 1975 - was launched by a Soviet rocket through a Soviet collaboration initiative at the time, called Interkosmos. And, as for the here and now, in 2021 ISRO announced that it would be opening itself up to multiple collaborations with the private sector, going forwards, via a series of reforms. Again, while ISRO isn’t the only space agency to do this, the hope is that public-private deals will be much quicker and simpler to negotiate in India than they are in some other countries - including America.

And perhaps India has grown to have such success with collaborations because of the next aspect of space travel that it’s particularly good at - efficiency. By now, ISRO has a solid reputation for being one of the most reliable space organizations out there. While NASA has reached its milestones faster than India has, NASA’s history is also checkered with various failures, including some particularly notable and tragic disasters. However, while there have been some missions gone wrong for ISRO (including the Chandrayaan-2 planned lunar lander, which crashed into the lunar surface) India’s agency has a good record of coming through first time and with little fuss. The best example of this is the Mangalyaan probe, or the Mars Orbiter Mission, which was launched in November 2013 and has been in position around Mars since September 2014. What sets Mangalyaan apart, though, is that it makes ISRO the first ever space agency to reach Martian orbit at the first time of asking. The likes of NASA and the Soviet Space Program had various missteps before they got there, but not India. Elsewhere, it was ensured that even the Chandrayaan-2 mission wasn’t a total disaster, as the planned one-year timeframe for the Orbiter that accompanied the doomed lander is now a planned seven-and-a-half years, such has been its success.

And it’s success like this that perhaps amplifies another of ISRO’s strong points, particularly in comparison to NASA - cost. ISRO’s budget has simply never come close to matching NASA’s. In 2022, while NASA reportedly pocketed $24 billion, ISRO received $1.8 billion. The American space agency gets more than thirteen times the funding than its Indian counterpart, then. But still, India now permanently sits at the top table of space travel, regardless. Its expertise is valued the world over, and its missions have contributed to some major breakthroughs. Again, the Mangalyaan probe is the prime example here. It’s said to have cost just $73 million. And not only is that a fraction of the cost of NASA’s MAVEN probe - another Mars orbiter, said to have tipped $580 million - but it’s also a lot less than it costs America to make even a space or sci-fi movie. At the time of Mangalyaan’s successful insertion into the orbit of Mars, the most often reported (and derided) comparison was that it had cost $108 million to make the 2015 Matt Damon film, “The Martian”. Meaning that India went to space for real for $35 million less than the US spent on a couple hours of Mars-based entertainment. Of course, the fact remains that for its money, NASA does still launch more missions and make more international headlines than ISRO does. It’s not to say that NASA is wasting its cash, only that ISRO is really making the most of theirs. And, seeing as the NASA budget can sometimes be a point of contention with the American public, it’s easy to see why ISRO has become something of an example to follow, for all other space agencies on Earth.

So, in terms of cost, efficiency, and the setup for productive collaborations, it’s ISRO that has emerged as something of a standard bearer in recent times. All of that said, perhaps ISRO’s way of doing things is reflective of a global change in attitude toward space travel in the last few decades. While NASA was born in the midst of a Cold War between two of Earth’s superpowers - it’s home country America, and the Soviet Union - ISRO has managed to avoid becoming too bogged down in international politics, for the most part. Of course, there are still missions it has fronted and decisions it has made that haven’t been universally supported… but still, ISRO exists at the heart of space, science, and technological development, both in India and on the global stage.

In terms of innovation, it’s not as though it could be fairly said that NASA is falling behind there… with the US still continually pushing what’s possible arguably more than any other force in space. But ISRO does still have one of the most exciting sets of future plans around. Top of the list is the Gaganyaan Program, India’s first human spaceflight mission… which, while it has been delayed, should get underway proper across 2023 and 2024. Elsewhere, there’s the upcoming Chandrayaan-3, which will see ISRO return to the moon and this time (hopefully successfully) land a lunar rover. There’s also another lunar rover initiative (this time partnered with JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) potentially launching by the middle of the decade… there’s a proposed mission to Venus, with the Shukrayaan-1 orbiter set to take India’s first journey to Earth’s so-called “evil twin”… and there’s a Mangalyaan follow-up on the horizon, as well, the Mangalyaan-2, sending India to Mars once again.

All of which means that NASA (and the rest of the world) are watching closely because there’s more to come from this one-time underdog of space travel. ISRO is no longer the also-ran in space technology. Instead, it’s paving a new way toward gaining knowledge of the solar system, and the universe. It’s cost-effective, reliable, and famously willing to share the load… and those are three ways that it could be said that NASA is falling behind ISRO.