Watch this Space: ISRO on the Moon, SpaceX in hot water

Part of the Chandrayaan-3 mission’s Vikram lander can be seen in this image shared by ISRO. (ISRO via X)

By Sethu Pradeep,
Published by Indian Express, 29 August 2023

This was a big week for both ISRO and SpaceX, albeit for completely different reasons.

The week that went by bore witness to what can be thought of as a reversal in fortune for two behemoths of the global space industry—ISRO and SpaceX. India’s Chandrayaan-3 soft landed on the Moon in a triumph that erased the disappointment of Chandrayaan-2’s crash while Elon Musk’s wildly successful private space technology firm has been sued by the United States Department of Justice.

Just days before Chandrayaan-3’s success, Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft unfortunately crashed on the lunar surface, emphasising how difficult space exploration is. In the past four years, four different missions from four countries have crashed on the Moon—Israel’s Beresheet, Japan’s Hakuto, Russia’s Luna-25 and of course, India’s Chandrayaan-2.

“If space is hard, landing is harder,” said Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in April this year, responding to the crash of the Hakuto spacecraft. With that, Leshin put into a sentence what more than sixty years of space exploration have taught us. Close to 50 per cent of all lunar missions in the past sixty years have failed, according to NASA.

That is the reason why only four countries—the Soviet Union, the United States, China and India—have managed to soft land on the Moon. The Soviet Union and the United States were two biggest superpowers in the world when those countries first landed on the Moon. In today’s world, the third member of that group, China, can be considered the biggest superpower in the world after the United States.

India’s achievement of landing on that list along with global heavyweights is even more impressive if you consider how cost-effective it was. While an exact figure has not been put out, the Chandrayaan-3 mission is estimated to have had a budget in the Rs 600 crore to Rs 700 crore range, around the same as its predecessor.

Even if you take the higher Rs 700 crore figure, that would be around $84 million. China’s first Chang’E mission that landed on the Moon is estimated to have cost around $219 million, according to South China Morning Post. Basically, India was able to demonstrate the same capability for less than half the cost about a decade later.

ISRO’s capacity to handle sophisticated deep space exploration missions cost-effectively puts it squarely in competition with the second subject of this column—SpaceX. The Elon Musk-led company has been a runaway success in the past few years with it carrying out successful launch after launch, taking satellites and astronauts to space.

A SpaceX rocket on Saturday carried four astronauts from four countries to the International Space Station for NASA, reported AP. Interestingly, both SpaceX and Boeing were hired by NASA to send astronauts to space at the same time nearly a decade ago. SpaceX has already launched eight crews but Boeing is yet to launch even one mission, with their Starliner spacecraft facing successive issues.

I admit, it is quite dramatic to say that ISRO and SpaceX are facing reversals of fate. The Indian space agency has a long record of successful ventures and the lawsuit against the private company by the US Department of Justice will probably be little more than a small speed bump for SpaceX’s runaway success.

According to the United States Department of Justice, SpaceX falsely invoked “export control laws” to discourage refugees and asylum seekers from applying to the company. The department states that the export control laws cited by SpaceX actually allow treatment of refugees and asylum seekers at par with US citizens.

The department seeks fair consideration and even back pay for those who were deterred from or denied employment at SpaceX in that way. It also wants civil penalties imposed on the company along with policy changes.

Musk spoke out against the charges, claiming that ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) law stopped him from hiring people who are not American citizens or permanent residents.

Curiously, Musk trotted a similar excuse when asked why SpaceX does not hire non-citizens during an event. “If you are working on rocket technology, that is considered advanced weapons technology so even a normal work visa is not sufficient (and you can’t work) unless you get a special permission from secretary of defence or secretary of state,” said Musk. He asserted at the time that it was not a wise policy for the United States because there were so many talented people around the world who could potentially work in the country.

Musk might be onto something. One of the major reasons why ISRO can do such a great job with a relatively small budget is because it can get away with paying talented engineers and scientists a fraction of what they would have been paid in countries like the United States.

See: Original Article