The Chinese space programme clearly has been a spectacular success. It has enhanced China’s international stature and given it entry into an elite club of countries that have put humans in space and that has hitherto consisted of just the United States of America and Russia. The temptation to emulate what China has done is always irresistible in this country. After China’s very recent achievement, the pressure on us, self-imposed entirely, will be very great. Plans for sending an unmanned spacecraft to the moon by 2006/07 have been announced and the prime minister has gone one step further and given Kennedy-like expression to the dream of an Indian on the moon in a decade’s time. It would be a disaster if we fell into this “me too” race. There is simply no need to feel defensive about our own space programme. This has been an outstanding technological and managerial accomplishment and has had tremendous developmental impacts in diverse fields. These have to be sustained and expanded, not frittered away in the pursuit of some false sense of national pride and prestige.
China’s space programme has always been and continues to be military-driven. The story of how and why the military came to play such a pivotal role in the country’s scientific and technological development has just been unravelled in Evan Feigenbaum’s brilliant new book, China’s Techo-Warriors. Like its nuclear weapons programme, as described in the classic China Builds the Bomb by John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s space programme was established in the background of the Korean War (1950-53), the Taiwan Straits crisis (1954-55) and of unfolding events in Indochina in the early Fifties. It received the initial impetus from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but this assistance ended by 1960. While Mao provided the political leadership, it was Marshal Nie Rongzhen who is today acknowledged as the father of the space programme. Others, like Liu Bocheng and Peng Dehuai, also provided the military thrust.
It was actually Qian Xuesen who laid the scientific and technological foundations of China’s space programme. Ironically, in the midst of the McCarthy hysteria that had gripped the US in the mid-Fifties, Qian was expelled from the US in 1955 after staying and prospering in that country for twenty years. Prior to that, he was a highly distinguished member of the faculty of the prestigious California Institute of Technology at Pasadena where he was a co-founder of the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Qian, who was a rocket specialist with several theoretical contributions still standing to his name, had also served in the US army. Other key scientific figures in the early years included Yang Jiachi who had studied at Harvard University, Ren Xinmin who had studied at the University of Michigan, Wang Daheng who was England-educated and Chen Fangyun who had worked in England in the late Forties. “Purely” local products who played a crucial role in establishing the space programme included Huang Weilu and Li Xu’e.
Cambridge-educated Vikram Sarabhai provided the original vision to India’s space programme in the late Sixties. But he died prematurely in 1971. Thereafter, Satish Dhawan, imbued with the same vision, gave shape to Sarabhai’s legacy and took the space programme to new heights of technological achievements never forgetting Sarabhai’s fundamental objective —space for developmental applications like telecommunications, broadcasting, meteorology and resource management. Indira Gandhi, who could very easily have used the space programme for national “prestige” or for political purposes, agreed wholeheartedly with the Sarabhai-Dhawan focus on the essentiality of creating not an Indian Space Research Organization but an Indian Space Research Organization. The only “diversion” for ISRO came in the mid-Eighties with the joint Indo-Soviet enterprise that put Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma into orbit. But fortunately that was only momentary and did not cost ISRO anything. It was Dhawan who kept India’s space programme a wholly civilian enterprise, an enterprise derived from and intimately linked to the social and economic needs and requirements of the country. While other noted scientists and technologists of his generation spent their time in political parikramas in New Delhi, Dhawan never moved out of Bangalore, insulated ISRO from political and bureaucratic interference and enhanced the institutional character and strength of ISRO by the manner in which he conducted himself in retirement.
It is an interesting coincidence that like Qian, Satish Dhawan also took his doctorate from Caltech in 1951. These two giants of their respective countries must have known and interacted with each other in the small, exclusive setting of Caltech. Their largely similar political beliefs would have drawn them even closer together. Dhawan shunned the media and hence he is not a household name. But he was indeed a most unusual personality, having an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics, a masters in English literature, another undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, a post-graduate degree in aeronautical engineering and a doctorate in aeronautical engineering and mathematics. He was, as Roddam Narasimha put it in his obituary article that appeared in Current Science, India’s first engineering scientist.
The fact that China’s space programme has been military-oriented has undoubtedly given it a clear edge in launch vehicle technology. Incidentally, China’s launch site is in the northwest Gansu province, not very far from Dunhuang at the edge of the Gobi Desert, a city that lay on a crucial junction of the Silk Road and the site of the extraordinary Mogao caves, discovered just over a century ago, that housed a fabulous collection of Buddhist literature, paintings, sculptures, textiles and other priceless relics. But in almost all scientific and engineering aspects of satellite technology barring the military satellite area, India is clearly ahead even though the Chinese have launched more satellites than India has (around 50 as compared to 35). It is generally not known that while China’s space programme started a good decade and a half earlier than India’s, India had very quickly narrowed the time gap. China launched its first satellite in 1970 while India did so in 1975. The momentum has been kept up. This Indian leadership in satellite technology is acknowledged by the Chinese themselves. A whole slew of satellites is scheduled to be put in orbit by India in the next few years. These cover not just the traditional areas of communications, broadcasting, weather forecasting and remote sensing but in other areas like education, distance learning, disaster management and telemedicine as well.
China’s unmanned and manned space flight programme was launched in the late Seventies although its existence was publicly revealed and confirmed only much later. And in the Nineties, China gained significantly from cooperation with a Russia desperate for hard currency. That route may be available to India also. But a space flight programme would just divert managerial resources and attention away from satellite design, launch and use. A one-off unmanned space flight may not quite be a disaster and could well have some economic spin-offs also. But whether it can remain “one-off” is a moot point. It is time-consuming. But more than that, as the Americans discovered to their cost, one flight leads to another and before you know it, you are caught in a trap of technonationalism that generates a lot of euphoria all round but whose enduring value is dubious.