India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carrying 104 satellites was launched on February 15, and the initial news says the launch process was normal and smooth. The previous record for multiple satellites on a single rocket was set by Russia, which launched 37 satellites into orbit with one rocket in 2014. India has created a new world record.
This is probably India’s first world record in space technology which has received wide attention. Although there will be further tests on the accuracy of the release of those satellites, Indians have reason to be proud of this record.
However, the space technology race is not mainly about the number of satellites at one go. It’s fair to say the significance of this achievement is limited. Indian scientists are more clear about this than the ordinary people, who are overjoyed by the media reports.
It is really not easy for India to achieve the current achievements in space technology with relatively less investment, and it also provides useful lessons to other countries in this regard. India has not only achieved a lunar orbital flight, but also has sent a probe into the Martian orbit, and its subsequent achievements are ahead of all the Asian countries.
Nonetheless, one of the most important conditions determining a country’s space technology is the size of the investment. According to the data published by the World Economic Forum in 2016, the US’ space budget in 2013 was $39.3 billion, China $6.1 billion, Russia $5.3 billion, Japan $3.6 billion and India $1.2 billion.
As India’s GDP is about one-fifth to one-fourth that of China’s, the share of investment in space technology in India’s GDP is similar to that of China’s.
There is another figure that deserves attention. India’s defense budget is about one-third of China’s, a higher percentage of GDP than that of China.
New Delhi’s space program is based on three considerations. The first is its ambition to make India a great power. Therefore, it’s focused not only on immediate interests but long-term ones. Second, the country believes it should remain present in space technology development, given its close links with military. And third, India is under pressure to compete with China and refuses to lag behind.
So India’s space technology stresses more on “projecting a national image”, such as sending probes to the Moon and the Mars. It’s reported that India also plans to send a probe to the Venus, another program that is suitable for media hype. Because of lacking follow-up research, the above mentioned single achievement which is a bit “ahead” will be “solitary” for a long time to come.
On the whole, India’s space technology is still relatively backward. Not only that it cannot be compared with the United States’, it greatly lags behind China’s as well. It is still fragmented and has not formed a more complete system.
For instance, the engine of its rockets is not powerful enough to support large-scale space exploration. India’s total number of space launches in 2016 was 7, whereas China has done 22 launches in the same year.
India is yet to put an astronaut into space and the country’s plan to establish a space station has not started. India sending probes to the Lunar and Martian orbits is the limits of its existing space flight capabilities. Although there are also people talking about “landing on moon”, the inadequate thrust of Indian rockets and lack of manned space flights cannot support that kind of talk.
India’s Achilles’ heel is its relatively small economic scale and a weak foundation for national development. People often say that there are “two Indias”, one is the “elite India” and another one is the “poor India”. As a hierarchical society, it has both world-class elite and a largest number of poor people. A country with such a huge gap between rich and poor is able to achieve “stability”, and a large number of poor people are resigned to the fate, are also a very interesting phenomena.
Many lessons can be drawn from India. On the one hand, the decisive role of the economic base cannot be overcome. On the other hand, it is true that everything depends on human effort. India is also taking its own path, and as a rising power, it has done a good job. It is ambitious but also quite pragmatic. It prefers comparisons with others as an incentive to its own progress and confidence, rather than letting itself be dejected. India’s political and social philosophy is worth pondering.