India's 'Mangalyaan' spacecraft blasts-off on a mission to Mars. Credit: IRSO

India’s ‘Mangalyaan’ spacecraft blasts-off on a mission to Mars. Credit: ISRO

On September 24, after months of flying through the depths of space, a spacecraft passed by Mars and ignited its engines, putting it in orbit around the ‘Red Planet.’ Meanwhile, back on Earth, Indian mission controllers broke into celebration. Having sent a spacecraft into orbit around another planet for the first time, India had just succeeded in a feat of technical and engineering brilliance. Doing so, it joined an exclusive club of space-faring powers to explore this distant world. Aside from India, only the United States, Russia, and the European Space Agency have accomplished this incredible achievement. India’s mission to Mars is remarkable in a number of regards, and has a number of important international implications.

In a technical perspective, this mission was a marvel. At around 75 million dollars, the spacecraft cost India less money to build, launch, and operate than it cost to produce the movies “Gravity” or“Mission to Mars.” It was also a fraction of the cost the United States spent to deliver the MAVEN spacecraft to Mars, a mission which was happening simultaneously with this one. Exploring space successfully on the cheap was a powerful demonstration of India’s growing technical and scientific expertise. Yet not only did India manage to pull of the feat of getting into Martian on a shoestring budget, it became the first country ever to do so on the first attempt. For the first time, India is making history in the annals of space exploration. The Indians have a reason to be proud, and rightly so.

The technical brilliance of this mission aside, there are a number of important international implications for India’s recent success. In the realm of international relations, space exploration is an important arena for competition. The ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s amply demonstrates this. Rising powers want the prestige and expertise that come with spaceflight, for they boost those countries standings in the international realm. Though the space race between the two superpowers of the Cold War may be over, a new one is rapidly emerging in the Asia-Pacific. Rising powers such as China and India are locked in competition for hegemony in the region, and are dueling it out in space.

India’s mission is an impressive first in Asian space exploration. No other Asian power has successfully sent a spacecraft to Mars. China’s Yinghou-1 probe, launched in 2011, and Japan’s Nozomi spacecraft, launched in 1998, were earlier Mars missions by Asian powers. Both failed to reach the planet. India is thus keeping pace with a China that has already succeeded with manned flight and put rovers on the Moon – achievements which India has yet to attempt. As the region continues to grow economically, and as India and China continue to rise, we are bound to see greater competition between them in space. The early stages of a new ‘space race’ are clearly evident.

Space exploration is vitally important for humanity as it continues to develop and advance at breakneck pace. Exploring the ‘final frontier’ is perhaps one of the most difficult and complicated challenges we’ve yet faced. Confronting those challenges generates a skilled, learned workforce, propelling economies and fostering intellectual growth. Even more importantly, exploration is fundamentally human. It is our curiosity, our desire to learn the unknown, that sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Space exploration represents the apex of that curiosity, as it offers us the possibility to know the vast universe around us. It brings out the best in us, and binds us together in powerful ways. Advancing the human frontier transcends boundaries, cultures, languages, and ideologies.

It is because of this that Asian exploration of and competition in space is a hugely positive thing. The ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union eventually resulted in human footsteps on the Moon – arguably humanity’s most impressive achievement ever. As China and India gear up their space programs with the hope of winning prestige and setting firsts, who knows what incredible achievements await us?