Contrary to the popular perception that the space race is a battle of one-upmanship, it actually means collaboration rather than competition; nations working together on a common mission of expanding our understanding of the universe. Whether it was the help extended by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in developing its Mars probe ‘Hope’ or NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar), a joint project between NASA and ISRO to measure Earth’s changing ecosystem, it is the international collaboration that is at the heart of the scientific endeavours. To be launched from India in September next year, NISAR is expected to be the world’s most expensive Earth-imaging satellite. In 2019 alone, NASA had over 700 international agreements for space and technology development. Never in history have so many space agencies simultaneously operated a mission to Mars or the orbit of Mars. There are currently 10 spacecraft from five different space agencies — the US, European Union, India, China, and the UAE — either orbiting or on the ground on Mars. While NASA’s rover Perseverance has successfully landed on Mars, China’s ‘Tianwen-1’ is scheduled to join in May. On its part, India is preparing to send a second Mars mission—an orbiter—after the successful launch of Mangalyaan-1, which had entered the Martian orbit in September 2014 and is still working well and sending data. The string of missions represents the spread of planetary exploration in general and Mars exploration in particular. This has become possible because of the reduction in launch costs and cheaper availability of the technology required in space exploration.
A human mission to Mars has been the holy grail of space exploration ever since Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon over 50 years ago. However, the manned mission involves a very complex set of technological challenges. SpaceX, a private US-based company promoted by Elon Musk, has a long-range goal of starting a commercial service to transport passengers to Mars, an 18-month round trip. For India, which has made a mark in space exploration and research, the growing global interest in the area will provide opportunities to promote innovation and greater participation of the private sector, particularly the startup industry. ISRO’s plan to have an exclusive space startup programme—Space Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (SEED) — is a welcome move in this direction. It will supplement the recent reforms in the space sector, aimed at enhanced private sector participation and help startups realise their full potential. The private sector must be allowed to participate in end-to-end activities like building of rockets, satellites and launch services. An open and inclusive space sector will result in accelerated growth, innovations and job creation.
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