Articles and Commentaries |
January 4, 2024

Space Exploration and the Future of India-US Space Cooperation

Written By: Ajay P. Kothari


There is something very interesting and intriguing about history and pre-history of India, better addressed now as Bharat. It is romantic history with Dev-Lok existing above us humans but with almost continuous back-and-forth interaction with us humans, always doing the right thing and even punishing the miscreants! No other country has such engrossing and prolific connections with the space above, except perhaps the Greeks whose mythologies very much parallel India’s.

When we think of Space, we also think of Indra and his court, even Narad Muni, traveling back and forth between up there and the ground occupied by kings, kingdoms and us people. There is a connection of heart, in addition to mind.

China has Chang’e, the Moon princess, Japan has Amaterasu, the Goddess of Sun and the Greeks have Icarus who flew too close to the Sun. However, the Abrahamic Religions, both Christianity and Islam, do not have any such equivalents. Vedic Bharat has a lot more. Why? It is a connection to everyday life, through traditions and traditional stories. One wonders why only India? What was so special about ancient Indian civilisation? Even Ramayana stories of ‘Ram-Setu’ which may have occurred in the middle of Holocene period connects to the actual geological and even anthropological Earth history; a connection to possible reality?

This is why we Indians as well as the Indian diaspora identify, even unknowingly, with Space and are excited about Space, more than many bean-counting countries and civilisations that decide to do it for economic benefits mostly. The palpable excitement in Indians after Chandrayaan 3, Aditya L1 and Gaganyaan Crew Escape System (CES) test points to something more. It should. It is quite possible that such excitement abates with time, but then it is equally possible that newer unknowns will come to light which will excite Indian brains, which in my opinion are quite fertile – a strong point for India.

In June 2023, Prime Minister Modi, during his state visit to the United States, signed the Artemis Accords, India becoming the 27th country to do so. This US-led international partnership on planetary exploration and research heralds new opportunities for India as also for the US. In early 2024, NASA and ISRO are scheduled to launch Earth-observing satellite NISAR[1] which will help scientists monitor how climate change is affecting Earth’s varied landscapes. In 2025, an Indian astronaut will likely be taken to ISS (International Space Station), likely aboard a Falcon 9 reusable rocket in the Dragon Crew Capsule of SpaceX.

A paper written by visionaries such as Dr. Ravi Sharma in 1975, previously under the tutelage of stalwarts like Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha, and still available in ISRO HQ Library, outlined how India could participate in the Shuttle and Station program of NASA. That may not have occurred then, but we are doing it now through the Artemis Accords.

But that is not all. The technological, Western ideas of recent centuries point to the same path which could be more than a coincidence; certainly an intriguing one worth taking a deep look-see into. The dots of the arguments above and below are connected. But that indeed is not all either. The love for all life forms as purveyed in Indian culture becomes an integral part of the scientific argument made below. It is not merely a selfish fetish of loving all humans or being caring of the next generation. It includes all life forms that exist on Earth. This is why we love them all, even the ones roaming in the streets!

Why Space Exploration?[2]

Why should we, as humanity pick up this baton and run with it? The answer is perhaps more profound than simple arithmetic of how Space has brought us tangible benefits, like the smart phones and many others. More profound than us getting there before some other country occupies parts thereof (Lunar resources), or all the potential minerals we someday may earn from some asteroids. Or remaining number one in this competition, or even have a place to migrate to in case of demolition of planet through internal or external actors. It is more encompassing and overwhelming. Through Drake equation and Fermi paradox, it has gone far deeper.

I came to the U.S. from India, 50 or so years ago, after listening to Apollo splashdown on a decrepit old Phillips radio on my father’s farm in the middle of a jungle[3] in North Gujarat. I became a Rocket Scientist here but have never thought those two sides are in conflict. Here, I offer a thesis as to why space exploration endeavours are not just the field of space scientists, but others too who are more humanities and arts inclined, and how we can bridge that divide through scientific as well as emotional arguments. We must.

Our Earth has been around for about four and a half billion years with multicellular life for about the last billion. In that, we have gone through 4-5 major mass extinction events as depicted pictorially below:

The last one, termed Cretaceous, wiped out the dinosaurs. Millions of species were wiped out during each of the above periods. It is estimated that anywhere from 50-95 percent of the then existing species were wiped out,  but due to the resilience of the Earth, after each period of extinction, millions of species were created lasting millions more years. But the most intriguing thing, interesting, and as yet unexplainable, is that not one single species out of those billions so far ever did a simple thing like clothing itself or even thought about it except one – humans! How is that even possible? Shelter, yes but clothing themselves, No.

So are humans superior? No, I do not prefer to say that nor do I portend that. Now let us look at the Drake Equation, attributed to Dr. Frank Drake who passed away a few years back. It basically is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilisations in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It is made up of these terms:

N=R_* f_P * n_e * f_l * f_i * f_c * L

N       =       number of civilisations with which humans could communicate

R_*   =       mean rate of star formation

f_P    =       fraction of stars that have planets

n_e    =       mean number of planets that could support life per star with planets

f_l     =       fraction of life-supporting planets that develop life

f_i     =       fraction of planets with life where life develops intelligence

f_c     =       fraction of intelligent civilisations that develop communication

L       =       mean length of time that civilisations can communicate

While the Drake Equation cannot be “solved” or even accurately calculated, it retains considerable utility for discussions about extraterrestrial life and intelligence. And that, after all, was the reason for its invention. But assigning some reasonable numbers to each term yielded N equal to anywhere from many thousands to millions. Remember that this is just for Milky Way, and there are trillions of galaxies in this universe.

In the summer of 1950, at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Enrico Fermi and co-workers Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York had one of several lunchtime conversation discussing recent UFO reports and the possibility of faster than light travel. After sitting down for lunch, Fermi suddenly blurted out, “But where is everybody”, an obvious reference to extra-terrestrial life. This gave rise to the Fermi paradox. We cannot see any sign of such life in our observable universe which of course has expanded with Hubble and now considerably with the Webb telescope. But the question still remains: “Where is Everybody?”

So, whether the Fermi paradox holds or not, we have been granted a humongous responsibility by God (for the believers among us) and by happenstance, (for the atheists). If it does, which appears to be the case at least in the observable universe, we are extremely unique and need to be an excellent steward of the precious cargo of all lifeforms. If the Fermi paradox does not, we need to be ready to protect us all in case needed. In either case the answer is the same.

To me, this does not mean our species is superior to others; I love the plant life, and the animals, and always will, sometimes even more than humans! But we, as humans, have been given or have a special responsibility, a stupendous one at that, in this universe to figure out things, shepherd them and continue this evolution, the evolution now in the third dimension which is Space, the ‘Z’ direction for the nerds among us. We must not only shepherd Earth, but also all life forms within it. They may be fantastically special. Even the ants, insects and roaches.

This includes furtherance of evolution. Evolution requires that more intelligent things are done almost continually. That requires that a society find ways to demarcate and appreciate it and its potential cause. This is perhaps a far higher calling than other callings – climate change or even human species survival. This is why devaluing appreciation of merit for other causes may hurt us as humanity, or even as Earthlings, in future. A huge effort is needed. An intellectual effort. This includes merit in myriad of fields – from art to literature to science to space to sports and others. This is why, what NASA and ISRO are doing, and the space efforts of other countries, are extremely important. Not just to India or U.S. or even just humanity but also to the entirety of life forms in this observable universe – whether the famous Fermi paradox holds or not! Art produces visions and it assuages. They touch the “not-yet-imagined” part of this equation that we scientists need, to fulfil the entirety of progress.

We will need help of many strata of society, artists, writers, poets, philosophers, thinkers and scientists to realise the next step. We should care for the truly unfortunates, truly downtrodden but should not lose sight of the above.

Reusable Rockets

Fortunately, and coincidently, there has been a paradigm shift in our ability to start to address the above points. The recent and upcoming developments in reusable rockets may allow for this paradigm shift in being able to traverse the solar system, establish large settlements on the moon that, as a concept, was previously discarded due to costs involved. The large settlements would mean 100-1000 people living there at any time, perhaps intermittently and changeably every few months. It may be possible to do this at about USD 3000 per pound to Lunar surface, possibly a factor of ten reduction, due to the use of reusable first stage as delineated by advancements by SpaceX primarily, with Blue Origin and RocketLab following. China has decided and is pursuing the reusable rocket avenue for their state owned Long March versions and also at private industries,[4] but India is not. India needs to. ISRO needs to.

This method was described earlier in The Space Review in two articles: A Giant Leap for America[5] and Six-Pack for Mars: A railroad to the Moon and Mars.[6] This particular work identifies a spectrum of possibilities, from Moon to Mars, from payload of 2500 lbs to 114,000 lbs on lunar surface, using the same virtual railroad.[7]

Principally, the method calls for launch of one of the commercially available reusable first stage rocket systems, the most immediately available being the eminently proven Falcon Heavy, the expendable upper stage (call it S21) to reach LEO first, remain in orbit for a day with the intended payload. Next, append that with another Falcon Heavy launch, the second upper stage now (call it S22) docks with the first (S21) already in orbit, but S22 does not contain any payload, rather that much extra propellant. Do this procedure multiple times as needed to increase the propellant fraction of the combination needed for the DeltaV (energy) required to reach the mission goal. say get to the moon and use the tanks for habitats there. We have been docking items in LEO for more than fifty years. We do not need to be proficient in refuelling for now. The question answered here is can we possibly get to a large enough propellant fraction to land on moon or mars? This particular work identifies a spectrum of possibilities, from moon to mars, from payload of 1200 kg to 50,000 kg on lunar surface, using the same virtual railroad. The elegance of this approach is that the combination and permutation of number of Falcon Heavy flights, how many upper stages are docked and/or refuelled, the payloads desired, and the destination DeltaV, we will have almost infinite variations available that builds a real “railroad” to most destinations in solar system. India could do this too and then would not have to wait for 40+ days to reach the moon doing numerous Hohmann transfers. It is not necessary nor wise to develop bigger and bigger rockets for larger and larger payloads or more energy demanding destinations. Someday, all nations will use this method for space explorations.

As examples, the following tables delineate how much payload can be taken to land on lunar surface with these few permutations/combinations. The last row in each table (bolded) are the solutions proposed where the upper stages are merely mated/docked together. Many of them are superior, for example, to the SLS (Space Launch System) of U.S. or potential ISRO system in development, in capability and cost both. With the Artemis Accords signed by India, it would be the method that both U.S. and India need to work together on.

Upper Stages Docked (not refuelled)*:

Figure 1 Two and Three Flights of Falcon Heavy

Figure 2 Four and Five Flights of Falcon Heavy

*Falcon Heavy to the Rescue: (Space Review: May 2023)

Living in Space

To begin with, a reasonably sufficient standard of living in Space, primarily the moon and then mars, should be what we should aim for – and move a single or a few steps at a time. Such living would invariably require energy, and highly preferably an incessant supply, 24x7x365 and at high enough power level to run equipment and paraphernalia along with providing us heat, possibly at a few MW to hundreds of MW.

We do not have much choice. Space Solar Power (SSP) just is not enough to meet the demands, and obviously falls as the inverse of square of distance from sun – not too attractive a scenario! Primordial elements gifted to us as fissionable or fertile are uranium and thorium, which contain a million times more energy per unit mass than the best chemical (HydroLOX). Of these, thorium (Th232) is fertile only and hence easier to handle and abundant on Earth, enough to supply net-zero and pollution free energy on Earth for thousands of years.

Addressing climate change, especially reducing carbon dioxide emissions while at the same time producing needed energy, is engaging humanity worldwide, and is apt to occupy many countries ever more so. While developing various technologies, one should also bear in mind this potential solution that is much simpler, cheaper, and faster to implement, while we wait for other solutions such as controlled fusion. Within the past few year some countries in the EU and Asia announced their intention to pursue nuclear power for their energy needs. In China, in June 2023, the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) has been granted an operating license[8] for the experimental TMSR-LF1 thorium-powered liquid molten-salt reactor, construction of which started in Wuwei city, Gansu province, in September 2018. U.S. and India need to work together on this technology as allowing for the Chinese domination of it would be a dire mistake.

And Thorium is available on the moon as well. So why not combine our efforts for terrestrial net-zero solution with a clear possibility of using it for our off-planet needs as well—for energy and propulsion?

As one can see above, India has the most amount of thorium in the world. India can become the new Middle East of energy with the mostest! But India is not developing this energy source correctly. Th232 as solid fuel is not the right way as being done at Kamini. It must be the Molten Salt Reactor way. [9]

As an addendum to the Reusable Rocket Revolution that has occurred, the next name of the game for living in Space will be “Repurposing”. Shown below are two examples of repurposing the reactor part of the nuclear propulsion system that landed on moon/mars, that can be disjointed and utilised for electricity and heat generation.

The “Evolution in Third Dimension” does not mean only taking the species to other habitable planets. That would be quite simplistic. What is meant here is that the knowledge base we have amassed over last 10K years (for humans) and longer but more simplistic for other life forms has been based on surface of Earth (with some ocean depth and sky high thrown in). Our evolutions have been war centric, exploration (of Earth) centric.

We need to continue this evolution now in the much larger (light years? Or at least billions of miles) dimension too. Upsurge our grey cells (as Poirot would say) to think that way as well. Not a plan to shepherd all existing species by taking them there. Rather, shepherd them here, take care of them so they do not disappear. Even roaches, bacteria, and viruses may be extremely unique as are all animals and even the plant kingdom. We need to protect them all. “Shepherding” does not have to mean dynamic. It could be static and/or combination of both.

Other point is that the populace of the world needs to feel a stake in space exploration, or they would not support it, and perhaps could create roadblocks. The argument is that many others, artists, authors, poets, philosophers and many more should feel a stake in it. We should try to bring them in. Without that, it may still happen but will take longer and we (the rocket scientist types) may have to rely on some Earth-shaking discoveries to excite the populace. Not wise, and not needed to do it that way. Let us not be self-centred. Bring many others into this “game”. Let them also feel their contributions made a difference for Earth.

And this is just not a ploy. Thinking Drake equation and Fermi paradox makes me convinced that there is truth in the argument too. It is not just a ‘Kumbaya argument’ as some allude to. That particular side of the argument is partly technical but also philosophical. We must take it that way too.

Space exploration could and should encompass not just left or right (be it brain or the unfortunate political divisions everywhere). It is ambidextrous.

Author Brief Bio: Dr. Ajay P. Kothari is the President & CEO of Astrox Corporation.


  1. NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) mission is a joint project between NASA and ISRO to co-develop and launch a dual-frequency synthetic aperture radar on an Earth observation satellite.










Latest News

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three × four =