Human SpaceflightIndiaInternationalInternational Space StationPolicy

US and India Advance Cooperation on Space and Technology

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes the hands of India’s latest astronauts, one of whom may fly to the ISS on commercial missions, as well as being eligible for Gaganyaan flights.
Credit: Office of PM Modi

In a White House press release on Tuesday, June 18, 2024, the governments of both the United States and India laid out a strategic roadmap for future collaboration in space – a goal that has long captivated the imaginations of scientists and diplomats alike. Several decades in the making, this agreement has the potential to fundamentally change the paradigm of the two nation’s collaboration in space, working to build a coalition that looks to challenge the rising power of China in a global space environment, potentially leading to the rise of the Indian subcontinent as a fully fledged, autonomous space power.

In the press release, the White House Press Office laid out plans for extensive technology sharing between India and the United States, highlighting space as a crucial nexus point for collaboration. Under this new arrangement, NASA and ISRO would work together to secure a ride to the International Space Station, likely utilizing a commercial spacecraft. While not the first Indians to travel to space, with Rakesh Sharma traveling to the Soviet station Salyut 7 in 1984, these would be the first to travel on an American spacecraft while flying for ISRO. The agreement also highlights the Strategic Framework for Human Spaceflight Cooperation to deepen interoperability in space and work toward commencing advanced training for ISRO astronauts at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This is a step taken for many new ISS partners in recent years including the United Arab Emirates. It is likely that the flight to ISS will be conducted in a similar fashion to the UAE, with Axiom or other providers brokering a seat for a short duration stay. 

Notably, the press release highlighted that both agencies were actively exploring opportunities for India’s participation in the Lunar Gateway program, as well as joint avenues for collaboration in other space technologies. India signed the Artemis Accords on June 22, 2023 – a key victory for this global coalition of governments and state actors as the space environment continues to evolve. NASA and ISRO continue to collaborate in other areas, as both agencies are preparing for the launch of the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR), a jointly developed satellite that will map the entirety of the Earth’s surface twice every 12 days as the United States and India work together to combat climate change and other global challenges. 

An artists concept of NISAR in orbit over the Earth. NISAR will completely map the Earth’s surface twice in 12 days to help understand our changing planet.

International collaboration on a variety of projects has become a popular strategy for ISRO, as they seek to expand their knowledge base. Prior to the onset of the Ukraine War, and for a majority of the early years of the organization, Russia was a key partner for technological development and mission design. For many of the early years of the program, several Indian carrier rockets used components or stages under licensed production from Russia. In the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine, ISRO has pivoted towards new partnerships across global space communities. In support of lunar and heliophysics science goals, ISRO has collaborated on imagery of the Lunar surface with ESA and will supply the launch vehicle in support of the PROBA-3 mission. CNES and ISRO have also collaborated on space situational awareness (SSA) data sharing, with the aim of making the near Earth environment more sustainable. More recently, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and ISRO have agreed to collaborate on the LuPEX project, a joint exploratory mission to explore the lunar surface, leveraging precision landing technologies mastered in both the SLIM and Chandrayaan programs.  

While India enters the world stage in terms of space cooperation, internally, there is a movement towards independent capabilities that mirror that of its peers, and its competitors. During the Third Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid 1990s, the United States government altered or deactivated components of GPS signals, which Chinese guidance systems were using in their missile targeting computers. This led to the creation of BeiDou, the domestic Chinese GPS network which has significantly bolstered the nation’s space launch industry. This sent a broader signal to international space powers that independence in space was becoming paramount to success. Realizing the value of independent access to communications and navigation systems, India began launching their own preliminary satellite internet constellation, NavIC, in 2013. Space has quickly become a strategic vantage point, and many nations are looking to divest from traditional space powers to ensure continued strategic positioning in a global landscape. Such capability matching, in the case of India, may be the case for future space ambitions, with the goal of learning from their peers to deliver a successful space program. More recently, India is potentially seeking to enter the satellite internet business with a new constellation on the horizon starting in the 2030s. 

A PSLV launch vehicle launches from Satish Dhawan Space Center, the mainstay launch vehicle for NavIC.
Credit: ISRO

In recent years, ISRO has begun to lay out the vision for the next several decades of space exploration and development – beginning with the Gaganyaan program. After a series of test flights, as well as cooperative training and knowledge sharing with the United States, India hopes to become the fourth nation to place crew in space independently, joining Russia, the United States and China. This is to be followed by construction of a preliminary space station: the Bharatiya Antariksha Station, a modular station slated to begin construction in the late 2020s. This small, two module station would represent India’s first fully independent step into LEO crew operations, outside of free flying spacecraft. Furthering this independent ambition will be the introduction of a new rocket family in India, the Next Generation Launch Vehicle. This partially reusable two to three stage vehicle will be entirely domestically manufactured, a first for Indian rocketry, and will contribute to India’s continued acceleration in the commercial launch sector. India’s sights will then likely turn to the Moon in the 2040s, as ISRO leadership has begun to lay out a roadmap for domestic missions to the lunar surface, potentially in conjunction with the American-led Artemis program. It is not immediately clear what form this program will take, but one thing is clear: India looks ready to move from a “regional” space power to a global one. 

India’s ambitions, and extended olive branches, are a sign that the country is moving rapidly through technological progression, and a changing landscape on the global stage. It is a signal that the rise of the “rest”, non-traditional superpowers becoming incredibly advanced nations, is well and truly here. It is a sign of the times as global paradigms shift, and one in which space will play a key role in helping to shape the geopolitical future of humans on Earth. For now, we can only sit and wait, and watch as agreements are drawn up and knowledge is shared – the first steps in space could be a sign of much bigger change to come.

Edited by Beverly Casillas, special thanks to Robbie Gitten

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