At Heaven's door

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 October, 2008, 12:00am

The Asian space race is in full flight now that India has launched a moon probe to catch up to those sent lunar-wards last year by China and Japan. Indian scientists next plan to equal Chinese successes with manned flights and are likewise working to put astronauts on the moon. South Korea is well on the way to following suit. Events are so similar to those half a century ago, when cold war foes the US and Soviet Union were jostling for the heavens, that it is easy to think the region's rivals are about to plunge the world into another era of fear and instability. Think again.

First, let's not put the cart before the horse. The cold war came before the space race; it is what drove the US and Soviet Union to ever-greater heights. But it is also safe to say a new cold war is not in the offing because of the manner in which Asian nations are going about their space programmes. American space commentator and former Nasa engineer James Oberg pointed out in the wake of India's successful launch that Chinese and Indian scientists had painstakingly researched the US and Soviet programmes to avoid making the same mistakes.

Such common sense is the reason for China and India having the world's first and second-highest economic growth rates respectively - and being in a better position than their western counterparts to weather the present economic storm. They are competitors in a global marketplace and going into space will refine and expand what they have to offer. Each is well aware of the need to ensure stability so as not to jeopardise prospects.

There is no doubting the military dimension to the programmes. It is as much the reason for going into space as the symbolism and technological and commercial payoffs. Satellites are about communications and surveillance; integral parts of any modern military. Keep in mind also that China's space effort is a direct extension of its missile programme - hence the alarm last year when the nation shot down a satellite.

It is in part this linkage that prompts Mr Oberg to believe that Indian scientists are likely to best their Chinese counterparts in space. China's programme is based on prior ones and Mr Oberg sees little original thinking. Indian scientists, however, are constantly coming up with innovative solutions to problems. He puts this down to China's space effort being centralised, with ideas being filtered down to workers by an elite group of scientists. India's, however, is based on teamwork in which ideas are put forward and argued over before being put into practice.

Here, it might be argued that China is ignoring lessons taught by the past. The Soviet Union's centralised space programme was able to launch the world's first satellite and beat the US with manned flights and space walks. America's programme was intentionally developed apart from the military and equalled Soviet achievements through scientific consensus. In consequence, it was the US that was able to develop rockets powerful enough to put the first person - and the US flag - on the moon.

Being able to master space has immeasurable symbolic value. National pride is an obvious spinoff, but the achievement also does wonders for a nation's global credibility. Skills in space are an undeniable measure of technological prowess. They tap directly into how others assess its commerce, diplomacy and military. Space research spawns scientific endeavour across a wide spectrum that has benefits for all sections of society. India's satellites have found water much-needed by the country's poor; China's space developments have put it in the forefront of world-wide robotics innovation.

Space will help drive Asia forward. That China, India, Japan and South Korea are in competition is good; all are being spurred to greater heights. Mr Oberg adds another important matter, though - that space activity is a constructive part of culture. It is less about a struggle between nations and ideologies than between intelligence and ignorance. Fortunately for Asia, intelligence is dominating.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor