Spinning around the moon together is not a bad way to make friends. India is hoping to launch its unmanned lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-I, in 2008. Among the countries putting their payloads on the orbiter is the United States of America. Mr Michael Griffin, from the US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Indian Space Research Organization to put instruments on the Indian spacecraft that will help in the detection of water and minerals on the moon. This is a significant first in the histories of both Indian space research and the relationship between India and the US. (The other countries chosen to put their instruments on board are Bulgaria, Britain, Germany and Sweden.)
Following the India-US nuclear deal and the visit of the American president, it would not be an overstatement to describe bilateral relations between the two countries as being on an all-time high, in spite of apprehensions on either side and across the Indian political spectrum. One of the features of this bilateralism is a meaningful engagement with the US that will be pragmatic yet founded on shared civilian, rather than military, interests. The new 'understanding' between Isro and Nasa seems to be a rather good example of how such engagements might work, placing both countries on an equal footing with each other. But the control over outer space and the moon is not a totally apolitical matter. Three Indian space research centres are still under US sanctions, which were tightened after the second phase of nuclear testing in India. It is heartening to note that this latest phase of space cooperation came with a great deal of warm rhetoric from the Nasa representative. But both the Indian and American parties were cautious about the political implications of this warmth vis-'-vis the sanctions. So, too much should not be expected to come out of these prospects, although some measured optimism is not uncalled for. Spinning around the moon with the US would also mean a restructuring of relations with both Russia and China, and at various levels, given the political history of the development of India's cryogenic technology. It is still a while before the launch happens, but outer space is not a bad place to work out some crucial political and apolitical relationships.