The role of global cooperation in space after COVID-19


India’s Gaganyaan human spaceflight program, which will launch on the GLSV Mark III (above), could face a delay of several years because of the pandemic. (credit: ISRO)

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people across the globe. It is also causing huge damage to the global economy. According to the predictions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), 2020 could be the worst year since the Great Depression in the 1930s, with more than 170 countries likely to experience negative per capita income growth due to the pandemic. Countries are taking different measures to mitigate that economic impact, depending on the situations in their countries. However, the process of overcoming economic crisis is going to be extremely difficult. Few businesses would find it hard even to sustain and there is going to be a significant upsurge in unemployment rates.

Like much of the rest of the world, India is under lockdown. It is bit premature to predict the exact impact of coronavirus crisis on the Indian economy since the situation is still evolving. However, it is clear at this stage that the country will be facing major economic downturn and levels of unemployment will steeply rise. The government has already offered an economic package of 1.7 trillion rupees ($22.3 billion) in the last month for providing food security and money to the poor. It is expected that the government would shortly announce the next economic stimulus package.

All this would require the government of India to undertake a ruthless review of existing patterns of expenditure. The government budgeting caters to the requirements of various segments of the society, including agriculture, health, education, and railways. The budget has two other important areas of attention: defense and science & technology.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the Indian government expected to try to reduce the budget allocations made just in February. However, it could be difficult to make major cuts in the agricultural, social services, and defense sectors. Science and technology could thus be one sector vulnerable to budget cuts, particularly for new projects. It is fully understood that science and technology is one area that always needs a budget boost to ensure progress of research and development and innovation continues unhindered. However, these are difficult times and there would be requirements to make some immediate compromises.

There is a need for the Indian government to prioritize certain projects. For example, the government announced in its 2020 budget a National Mission on Quantum Technologies & Applications (NM-QTA) with a total budget outlay of 80 billion rupees ($1 billion) over five years. It is a much-required investment because quantum computing, quantum cryptography, and quantum communication would allow India to leapfrog its technology development. However, this project is vulnerable to potential reprioritization by government agencies.

Another major project on the anvil is the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Gaganyaan project. This is India’s ambitious program for a human mission to low Earth orbit with an estimated cost of 100 billion rupees ($1.3 billion). Jairam Ramesh, a member of parliament who is also the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, has recently suggested in an interview with Pallava Bagla that under these tight fiscal circumstances India could think of delaying this mission by three to four years.

Gaganyaan is a spacecraft for carrying an Indian astronaut to space. Four Indian Air Force test pilots are undergoing astronaut training in Russia. It is proposed to fly its first mission by late 2021 or early 2022, lasting for approximately seven days. So far only three countries in the world have demonstrated such capability, namely the US, Russia, and China. There is an opinion in India that, since they are almost two years away from a flight, it could be better to freeze this mission for a few years and allow finances to be diverted to address the COVID-19 crisis.

Indian is not the only major space power facing major financial challenges owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Thus, while the issue of Gaganyaan is India specific, it still should not be viewed in isolation. In many other nations, major space projects demanding significant financial commitments could be put on the backburner in near future. Various investments in space will under major scrutiny because of this crisis. Today, when the virus is taking so many lives, it would be immoral to even offer a counterargument to opinions like, “Why spend money for going to Moon and Mars when our healthcare sector is suffering?”

At the moment, it is premature to predict what the world will be like after, perhaps, six months. It is not the purpose of this essay to debate about the possibility of a “new world order” in post-coronavirus era. However, in all likelihood, world powers will realize the need for greater cooperation among nations versus any aggressive competition. At the same time, it would be naive to think that power politics would wither away so easily.

But, perhaps, space could offer an excellent opportunity to demonstrate a way forward. It is a reality that many major space missions are money-guzzlers. However, altogether stopping investments in major space protects could work against the long-term interests of humanity. Various space projects among nations are at different levels of maturity. All these projects have relevance, and it could be unwise to terminate these projects. Hence, bilateral and multilateral collaboration could emerge as better options for the future. All this would require various states to alter their mindsets.

Some people have been arguing in favor of global cooperation as a better option, particularly in case of human missions to the Moon and Mars. Now, the time has come for the world to look at the importance and urgency in regard to various proposals in development and on the drawing board. Countries should stop the unnecessary activity of trying to reinvent the wheel in every respect of space experimentation.

In case of India’s Gaganyaan mission, a couple of years back some people argued that India should avoid going solo for human spaceflight. In one conference in Goa in 2018, scientist V Siddhartha had suggested that India should actively advance the idea that human space flight programs of all spacefaring nations become an international collaborative program among those national space agencies. Even today, India could lobby to become a part of ISS. This also could allow India to send their astronauts after their successful completion of training to ISS.

Gaganyaan has yet to reach the midpoint of its development. The two uncrewed test flights of this program had been scheduled for December 2020 and July 2021. Two Indian Data Relay Satellite Systems (IDRSS) communications satellites meant for this mission are also under development. This suggests significant savings for the government if this project is put on hold for some time.

Today, the world is enduring a major crisis that demands drastic measures. After the situation gets stabilized to some degree, the space community can a take a measured view about their various ongoing projects and decide on priorities. However, it could be a positive development for the global community if nations decide to shift their futuristic ambitious programs from the local to the global level. It was always known that science would go faster if important countries join hands together to further their space agendas. Now the time has come to bring it in practice.