ISRO’s Mangalyaan is a lucky omen for India, shifting the focus from meaningless prestige projects like putting a man on the moon to hard-nosed investment in space. Of course, our first planetary probe has invited the customary dissent notes from fans of displacement analysis. They protest that the money spent on space missions would have been better invested in vaccines and blackboards, though no one has ever insisted with any vehemence that health and education must be sacrificed at the altar of space. And, quite inexplicably, the BBC has chosen to regard Mangalyaan as the starter’s pistol for an Asian space race between India and China, a dim echo of the Cold War rivalry of the US and the USSR.
But that’s a fallacy. The 20th century space race was actuated purely by geopolitical rivalry and consisted mainly of grandstanding by the two most powerful and technologically proficient nations. The Russians got off to a head start with the first satellite (Sputnik), and the first dog, man and woman in space (Laika, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova), and then the Americans trumped them with the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong). Live payloads indicate political priorities, not scientific or commercial imperatives, though the spinoffs included technological advances of incalculable commercial value, like Velcro and the compact, rechargeable batteries that, 50 years later, now power mobile devices and cameras.
However, in the last half-decade, space has become contested territory. Formerly the monopoly of powerful nations, it is now the speculative playground for business leaders like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal. When nations were in charge, space exploration subserved national interests. Now, commercial interest and the private fascinations of CEOs and investors could become prime movers. The implications of the exploration and colonisation of space, which are more or less agreed upon, may become unpredictable and disruptive.
It was traditionally surmised that precious metals would power the first boom in space. One result could be a sudden influx of gold, but this never caused anxiety because nations, the promoters of space projects, abhor uncertainty in currency markets.