Charting Indo-US Space Cooperation: A Historic Journey from Cold War to Artemis Accords

Indo-US Space Cooperation

Indo-US Space Cooperation: Space collaboration between Washington DC and New Delhi has a long and intriguing history. This partnership, which began during the heydays of the Cold War and the formative years of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), has seen its share of highs and lows. But as Indian PM Modi’s recent visit to the United States and the signing of the Artemis Accords suggest, there is a new chapter unfolding in this remarkable relationship.

The Evolution of Indo-US Space Collaboration

Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States garnered much attention, especially with regard to space cooperation. During his visit, India officially joined the US-led Artemis Accords, becoming the 27th country to join this non-binding agreement, which emphasizes space sustainability and lunar exploration.

In a joint statement, President Biden and Prime Minister Modi expressed their commitment to expanding Indo-US space cooperation. They highlighted the growing collaboration in areas such as earth and space science, space technologies, and even a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation by the end of 2023. Additionally, NASA’s Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite is set to be delivered to ISRO’s U.R. Rao Satellite Centre in Bengaluru, India, with a planned launch in 2024.

Furthermore, both leaders called for increased collaboration between the US and Indian private sectors in space, addressing export controls and promoting technology transfer. President Biden commended India for signing the Artemis Accords, emphasizing the common vision of space exploration for the benefit of all humankind.

Overcoming Challenges: Sanctions and Self-Reliance

To appreciate the significance of this current cooperation, it’s essential to look back at the hurdles that India and the US have overcome. Sanctions imposed on India after the Pokharan nuclear tests disrupted collaboration and led to the denial of critical components and supercomputers. This strained the relationship between the two countries’ space entities.

In 1992, following the dissolution of the USSR, the US objected to the Indo-Russia cryogenic engine deal, forcing Russia to renege and renegotiate without technology transfer. These sanctions slowed progress in critical areas, but India’s resilience and determination shone through.

Also Read: How Europe’s ESA Enhances India’s Solar Mission with Deep Space Support

Workarounds were implemented, enabling India to develop two crucial technologies independently: supercomputers and cryogenic engines. The US realized that sanctions were ineffective because India possessed a capable workforce for space and information technology development.

This realization prompted a shift in US policy. In 2004, a conference organized by two professional societies, one from the US and the other from India, provided an opportunity to rebuild political and technical ties. The establishment of the US-India Civil Space Joint Working Group (CSJWG) in 2005 marked a pivotal moment in this evolving partnership.

One of the earliest outcomes of CSJWG cooperation was Chandrayaan-1, India’s lunar mission, which carried NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper. This instrument played a crucial role in detecting water trapped in lunar minerals, significantly advancing our understanding of the Moon’s composition.

Today, the Indo-US space collaboration continues to flourish. The upcoming NISAR project, scheduled for launch in 2024, is a testament to this partnership. It features an L-band synthetic aperture radar, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder, and payload data subsystem provided by NASA, with ISRO contributing the spacecraft bus, S-band radar, launch vehicle, and associated launch services.

Indo-US Space Cooperation

A Historic Beginning

To trace the roots of this collaboration, we must go back to 1962 when the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established. INCOSPAR engineers received training at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Centre and Wallops Island facility in 1963, laying the foundation for future cooperation.

In the same year, India launched its first sounding rocket, a Nike Apache obtained from NASA, from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS), which was also set up with US assistance. During the Cold War era, TERLS was designated as a UN facility for promoting common scientific research, transcending geopolitical tensions.

Seven years later, in 1969, INCOSPAR evolved into ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization). ISRO’s first major applications program, known as the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), utilized NASA’s ATS-6 satellite to broadcast educational programs to remote villages across India. This program showcased the potential of satellite broadcasting for development.

Arnold Frutkin, the then Assistant Administrator for International Affairs at NASA, reflected on this project’s success. He highlighted how India’s contract with Ford Aerospace for a commercial satellite demonstrated the program’s effectiveness and its economic benefits for the United States.

This historical perspective underscores the significance of commercial expectations in government-to-government space programs. As India and the US embark on the Artemis Accord and seek enhanced commercial collaboration across the space economy, they aim to address export controls positively and facilitate technology transfer, mirroring the spirit of cooperation that has persisted throughout their history.

Indo-US Space Cooperation Today

In contemporary times, Indo-US space collaboration has evolved into a multi-faceted partnership. The eighth meeting of the US-India Civil Space Joint Working Group (CSJWG) held in January highlighted the diverse areas of cooperation, including earth and space science, human space exploration, global navigation satellite systems, spaceflight safety, space situational awareness, and policies for commercial space.

Additionally, participants at the CSJWG meetings have explored the implementation of guidelines and best practices developed by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. This commitment to responsible and sustainable space exploration underscores the shared values of both nations.

Looking ahead, the Artemis Accords represent a significant step forward in Indo-US space collaboration. By prioritizing space sustainability and lunar flight, these accords align with the broader goals of peaceful and cooperative exploration of outer space for the benefit of all humanity.

In conclusion, the journey of Indo-US space cooperation has witnessed remarkable milestones and challenges. From its inception during the Cold War to overcoming sanctions and fostering self-reliance, this partnership has endured. Today, as both nations commit to a new era of collaboration through the Artemis Accords, they stand poised to contribute to the peaceful exploration and sustainable use of outer space, leaving an indelible mark on the history of space exploration.

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