Houston Calling New Delhi

The United States and India can use space cooperation as a launchpad for deeper cooperation.

Flickr/Sweetie187.U.S.-India relations reached a high point when the two countries signed the Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2005. But since then, relations between the two countries have drifted.

While the Obama administration continues to reiterate that relations with India are vital, there have been several issues where Washington has expressed its displeasure. These include India’s nuclear liability bill, which Washington sees as unfair to U.S. companies; India’s decision to reject two different American jet fighters for India’s Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement; and India’s less-than-supportive role within the United Nations on a range of issues, including Libya, Iran and Syria.

New Delhi is not without its own set of complaints about Washington. India feels that American pressure to deepen U.S.-India defense cooperation is premature, particularly given Indian questions about the United States’ credibility as a potential ally or partner. The Obama administration’s initial focus on China is still an irritant in New Delhi, although Washington has since corrected course.

There is certainly no dearth of official statements from both capitals concerning the vitality of the relationship. But it is clear that what is needed is a grand project around which the relationship can grow and strengthen. Without this initiative, we may see US-India relations flounder. One such ideal place for the two countries to collaborate on a grand scale is space.

An Opportunity and Imperative

In 2009, Karl F. Inderfurth, former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Affairs, and C. Raja Mohan, prominent Indian foreign policy analyst, argued in the Financial Times that space cooperation should become the heart of U.S.-India relations. Several space joint-working group meetings have taken place since then, but substantive outcomes are proving elusive.

Such cooperation would have proven difficult in previous decades. Many Indian space research agencies, including ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization)—India’s equivalent of NASA—were under U.S. sanctions. With sanctions lifted, the potential for cooperation is much greater. Unlike nuclear cooperation, space is much less controversial—and promises benefits not only for humanity but for the long term sustainability of outer space.

Indo-American space cooperation also offers the potential for becoming a broad-based initiative which brings a wide spectrum of stakeholders—national space agencies on both sides, education, science, and technology agencies, as well as private commercial entities—together in collaboration. With private sector participation, there is the prospect of moving beyond governmental entities to create new strategic industries in space.

To achieve such an ambitious agenda, the two governments should institutionalize space cooperation by setting up an Indo-American Commercial Space Initiative or a Space Knowledge Initiative. Such an effort could fall along the same lines as the U.S.-India Agricultural Knowledge Initiative and the U.S.-India Clean Energy Initiative, which are successful models of cooperation. Clean energy is a particularly successful model because it is a public-private partnership, with both governments investing $25 million and the private sector investing $50 million.

Space Traffic Control

There are several specific areas of space exploration where the two countries could cooperate. But an urgent need exists for collaboration on space situational awareness (SSA), which is the ability to monitor, understand, and predict the changing physical environment of outer-space. This includes the location and movement of natural and manmade objects in an effort to prevent collisions and accidents.

This is the corollary of maritime domain awareness (MDA), which refers to essentially large collation of data—both intelligence and information to arrive at what is called in the maritime lingo a common operative picture (COP)--and air domain awareness (ADA), a similar concept regarding air domain.

Of all the potential areas of collaboration, joint space situational awareness is most urgent for India and the United States. Outer space has become crowded, congested and contested—increasing the potential for collisions. The long-term sustainability of outer space is of paramount concern to India and the United States. An increasing number of incidents—the Chinese weapons test in 2007, destruction of a defunct satellite by the United States in 2008, and the collision between a Russian and U.S. satellite in 2009—illustrate the potential threats for space-faring nations. Space debris, unpredictable space weather and aging satellites continue to create insecurity.

According to NASA, there are over 500,000 pieces of debris in Earth’s orbit, some of which are large enough to cause serious damage to satellites and spacecraft. Space weather, caused by charged solar particles and the Earth’s magnetic field, also create disturbing conditions for space objects.