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Yury Gagarin and Space Rivalry

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 20, 2011

    Do nation states ‘mature’ over time? Do they change the symbols of their achievements as they grow up? Do they respond to changed geopolitical realities with dynamic policies for global image projection? Is the concept of nationalism inert for them? Are the beliefs about national identity static? All these questions need to be revisited today when the world is celebrating fifty years of man’s foray into outer space, which, in turn, set off a space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

    On April 12, 1961 the first manned flight to space was undertaken by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. For mankind this journey was like conquering the final frontier. Even today, fifty years after this historic achievement, space travel remains a dream for many states, barring the US, China and Russia. Few states in the world are currently making significant efforts to journey into space. At the same time some states and private individuals have successfully put men and women in space by making political or commercial arrangements with the US or Russia. Today, a few private space organisations are working towards developing their own space infrastructure. Recognising the importance of Yuri Gagarin’s space adventure, the UN General Assembly has declared April 12 as the International Day of Human Space Flight.

    Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Gagarin’s space flight came as a ‘bolt from space’ for the United States. The USSR had beaten the US by becoming the first country to launch its Sputnik into outer space and had followed it up with a manned flight. This ‘loss of face’ forced the US to significantly increase NASA’s budget, which was around 2 per cent of its GDP during the Apollo era (1960s to 1980s); today, NASA’s budget is only around 0.5 per cent of the US GDP.

    The positive outcome of the superpower rivalry in space was the Apollo programmes, which led to the overall development of space and rocket science in general. When Neil Armstrong became the first man to reach the moon, the US believed that it had stolen a march on the USSR in the space race. During the 1970s and 1980s the significant achievements in the space arena were subtly supported by a well orchestrated public relations strategy that made the world believe that the US was the best in the business. This ‘enmity’ in space ended, however, with the end of the Cold War.

    Mainly because of financial constraints, during the last two decades Russia has been in no position to challenge the space supremacy of the US. After the end of Cold War the US adopted a policy that promoted international space collaboration to fulfil a part of its own agenda. The international space station (ISS) experiment is the flagship in this regard, whereby the Cold War competition morphed into cooperation. This is the first long-standing experiment undertaken in space in which 16 states work together, with the US and Russia as the major partners.

    On the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight, the space scenario appears to be at a crossroads. Given its economic recovery Russia is now in a position to invest more in its space programme. On the other hand funding for NASA is being reduced. President Obama’s space policies are based more on the cost benefit analysis than on jingoism. Even common definitions of success and failure appear to be changing with regard to achievements in the space field. In short, it appears that both the public and politicians are ‘growing up’. ‘Is this a natural progression or is it because of other compulsions’?

    There is no straightforward answer to this question. The current geopolitical realities must be taken into account before responding to it. First, in the Cold War era there were only two rivals, which is not the case now. Over the past few decades the world has witnessed the meteoric rise of China in the space arena. Are the Chinese the new rivals in this field? What is their space agenda? Are they provoking the rest of the world to move towards weaponising space by conducting an ASAT (anti-satellite) test in 2007? Secondly, why are the not-so-major space faring nations like Japan and India investing in Moon and Mars missions? Are the minerals on these planets going to be the key for the survival of mankind? Is tomorrow’s race going to be the race for the resources beyond the earth’s surface? Thirdly, Russia is slowly consolidating its position, increasing budgetary support and also planning to corner 50 per cent of the global space launch market. Fourthly, is the US government’s policy of encouraging the privatisation of space a covert attempt to allow non-state actors (private industry) to dominate? This could allow them to exploit this sector as ‘kingmakers’ for various usages ranging from minerals to military. Lastly, the hidden motive of some space faring nations appears to be to avoid getting trapped into a UN mandated international space regime.

    It is critical to take into account that the Cold War ideology had clarity but 21st century ideology is more about successfully playing the hypocrite. The lines between ‘black’ and ‘white’ have significantly blurred in the present era. The concept of a ‘space race’ is no longer the same as it was in Gagarin’s time. Economic realities are now supreme and are even forcing major powers to make compromises. New space faring countries are posing different challenges. Probably, US perceptions about self-esteem are also changing. As Obama noted on the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight,: "We are no longer in a space race. What was once a global competition has become a global collaboration."