The space race is a marathon for which the finish line is stretched out far away, dauntingly so, somewhere in the horizon. In fact, we can’t really see the finish line. When it comes to space, can there ever truly be a finish line (maybe if we never discover how to travel at light speed)?
Regardless of where this theoretical finish line may lie, the contestants of planet Earth press on in this most lengthy of marathons. Trying to pick up a second wind right now is India, huffing and puffing as it spies China’s back, close enough that it can see the perspiration slide down its rival’s neck in a Space Race 2.0 that is reminiscent of the US-Soviet Union showdown just a few decades ago.
Yesterday, India took a deep breath and started trying to gain on China when it unleashed a spacecraft into orbit, with the hopes that the little guy will make it to Mars. If it succeeds, India will become the first Asian country to set spacecraft on Mars. This comes in the wake of the 2011 Chinese failure of a Mars mission, where their spacecraft failed to leave Earth’s orbit and soon disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.
From the Indian space agency, a director hoped to catch up with China, saying that “China has gone earlier, but today we are trying to catch them, catch that gap, bridge the gap.”
While the launch alone is a milestone that has roused a sense of national pride for many Indians, the symbolic spacecraft, representing India’s quest for international prestige, has quite some time to kill (or fail). Because the country was unable to develop a more robust launcher with the kick necessary for a direct launch, the spacecraft will have almost a month to admire the way sunlight sparkles on the Ganges as it orbits around the Earth for weeks, slowly pushed into space by occasional little bursts from its thrusters.
Though India’s thirst to prove itself as an international contender and new Asian force to be reckoned with is both understandable and admirable, it is a tad questionable why they have chosen to spend $72 million on a Mars mission while the news is filled everyday with horrifying stories of India’s extreme poverty, human rights violations, and urgent need for infrastructure and social reform. Admittedly, for a Mars mission, the price tag is on the low end of the spending spectrum, but the criticism still stands.
The former head of the Indian Space Research Organization himself said, “Instead of concentrating on practical missions, we are spending money to prove nothing.”
Meanwhile, in the flurry of election campaign season, both the current prime minister and the opposing hopeful candidate have both expressed delighted congratulations to the scientists involved, happy that “India has once again established itself to the world.”
Should nothing derail the spacecraft’s orbit and eventual journey to the dusty red planet, India’s spacecraft will touch down on Mars in late September next year.