The Soviet Union’s attempts at landing a spacecraft on the moon were marked by failure and disappointment. Their first 11 attempts resulted in a series of stuck, failed, missed, and crashed missions. Even in the modern era, the track record is still shaky, with only three successful lunar landings out of eight attempts by China, India, Israel, Japan, and Russia in the past decade. The daunting challenge of landing on the moon is evident in the scoreboard compiled by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist, which amusingly reads: Earthlings 23, Gravity 27.
India celebrated its first successful lunar landing on Wednesday when the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft safely touched down near the lunar south pole. This milestone accomplishment makes India the fourth country to achieve the feat. Jim Bridenstine, former NASA administrator, commended India, stating, “They should feel very proud of this accomplishment.” The remarkable aspect of India’s achievement lies in the fact that it was accomplished with a relatively modest budget compared to other countries.
India’s Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) estimated the cost of the Chandrayaan-3 mission at $75 million in 2020. This figure, though not updated, demonstrates India’s ability to achieve great heights within a limited budget. In comparison, NASA’s similar lunar lander missions, developed through its “Commercial Lunar Payload Services” program, have a maximum budget of $2.6 billion over 10 years, with individual mission contracts worth upwards of $70 million. It is evident that India’s cost-effective approach sets them apart.
When considering overall budgets, NASA’s funding of $25.4 billion in 2023 dwarfs ISRO’s budget of approximately $1.6 billion. Bridenstine acknowledges the stark difference in budgets, attributing it to the “different level of capability” that NASA offers. With a larger budget, NASA boasts continuous astronaut presence in orbit and ambitious missions targeting planets and asteroids. However, it is important to note that as a percentage of GDP, the U.S. spends more on space, with 0.28% allocated compared to India’s 0.04% according to a report by the Space Foundation. This indicates that India has room to invest more and develop capabilities comparable to the United States.
India is increasingly recognized as a key player in space geopolitics. While China has taken over from Russia as the most significant rival to U.S. influence and capabilities in space, India is potentially poised to take the third spot in the space superpower hierarchy. Bridenstine encourages India to seize this opportunity and further capitalize on their success. With a strong economy, India has the potential to allocate more funds to space exploration and development.
Bridenstine believes that costs associated with space exploration will continue to decline, benefitting all those interested in venturing into space. As more companies engage in missions, the costs of reaching the moon are projected to decrease. This development opens up new possibilities and opportunities for space exploration on a global scale.
India’s successful lunar landing on a shoestring budget stands as a remarkable achievement. It showcases India’s ability to accomplish extraordinary feats with limited resources. As India continues to invest in and develop its capabilities in space, it has the potential to rise as a major player in space geopolitics. With costs projected to decrease, the future of space exploration appears promising and opens up new frontiers for humanity to explore.