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India’s space odyssey

Discussion in 'Indian Military Doctrine' started by layman, Oct 26, 2013.

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  1. layman

    layman Aurignacian STAR MEMBER

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    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. But what about corporations? Electronics and computer manufacturers use precious metals for making fine, highly conductive connections between microprocessors and circuits. An increase in supply would reduce manufacturing costs. And since a few of their number, such as Samsung and Apple, have the wherewithal to fund space exploration, the prospect of a gold glut is not entirely theoretical. This is just a random what-if example, though.

    Corporations would also benefit from setting up manufacturing centres under zero gravity in a vacuum, where many processes deliver far better product quality than in earthbound factories, and hazardous technologies can be used without environmental anxieties. Space factories would also have an inexhaustible source of power—sunlight, unimpeded by an atmosphere and uninterrupted by night. It is hazarded that the first commercially successful off-earth factories would be space stations using solar power, lifting raw materials cheaply from low gravity sources like asteroids and small moons and producing small, light, high-value finished goods. Since lifting anything out of earth’s gravity well imposes huge costs—whether raw materials or plant, equipment or food for staff—the entire process needs to be sustainable in space.

    India is taking a stake in this game with Mangalyaan, following on from Chandrayaan, which had helped to settle a hoary old question by discovering water on the moon. But following that success, the space programme had developed a curiously antiquated desire to put a man on the moon, at the expense of contemporary priorities like the huge potential market in launch vehicles and payload design. But another break with the past must be made, because participation in developing space settlements appears to be more rewarding than colonising planets and moons. The solar system is littered with asteroids, many containing commercially valuable metals in unbelievable quantities. Despite high initial investment, mining and related manufacturing in the asteroid belts using habitats in space, not planets, promises to be very rewarding over the long term. Incidentally, the latest space habitat model, an improvement over the Stanford Torus and the O’Neill Cylinder of the 1970s and NASA’s Lewis One of the 1990s, is named Kalpana One after Kalpana Chawla.

    Indian space scientists should consider commercial issues because now that corporates are entering the space game, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 could be sidestepped. The basis of space law, it designates outer space as the common heritage of humankind, promotes cooperation in exploration and prohibits the sequestration of its assets by nations. That’s the problem. The treaty is signed by nations. It assumes that only nations can be players in space and says nothing clearly about individuals or commercial interests. It leaves the door wide open to a wild new commercial frontier.

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