India to the Moon – Deja Vu from Spain-Columbus Voyage to India?

 

This week India launched its second mission to the moon named Chandra-Yaan-2 (literally Moon vehicle-2). Eleven years ago, India’s first lunar mission, Chandra-Yaan-1, contributed to the discovery of water on the moon by “using two scientific payloads – Moon Impact Probe (MIP) and NASA-built Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3). Both picked up data that definitively proved there is water ice on the moon in the polar regions“.

Distribution of ice at moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right), detected by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument. (NASA) – courtesy-Swarajya

That discovery changed everything. Now all major nations are watching to see whether an inexpensive mission from India can actually land on the south side of the moon “between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, about 70 degrees south of the lunar equator.” And if ” .. it manages to soft-land at this point sometime around 7 September, it would have reached closer to the moon’s south pole (around 600 km away) than any previous mission”, according to an article in Swarajya.

Lunar landing sites (The Bruce Murray Space Image Library) – courtesy Swarajya

A low intensity race is kinda on. As the Swarajya article points out, US NASA has its sight set on the moon’s polar south – working to send astronauts there in five years. India’s ISRO is also planning a third moonshot and it will involve bringing soil samples back from the region. And “then there’s China: apart from planning multiple sample return missions to this region, the country is also preparing to build a research outpost in the area.”

Why this race? As the Swarajya article says,

  • “… the most obvious use of water on moon will be for drinking and as a source of oxygen, making the extended stay of humans on the celestial body possible. But interestingly, it may also shape mankind’s journey to other planets. … Water ice around the lunar poles can be used to extract rocket propellent.  … Fuel is one of the biggest challenges to long-distance space travel. … To go deeper into space, say to Mars, spacecraft will need to carry more propellent…. Spacecraft can be refuelled on moon, making it a pit stop … The option could be useful for deep space missions, or those to other planets, too. While travelling to Mars, taking a detour to moon to refuel would reduce the mass of a mission at the time of the launch from Earth by 68 per cent, a study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests….
  • “Alternatively, , experts say, a ‘gas station’ can be set up in space and supplied from the moon, and spacecraft can dock there to refuel after breaking free from Earth’s gravity. This too is an attractive proposition because transporting propellant from the moon to other locations in space is much cheaper than moving it from Earth. This is because the moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth. As a result, breaking from the moon’s gravity requires much lesser energy than defying Earth’s.”

The Swarajya article titled Chandrayaan-2: Why ISRO Is Going Where No One Has Before – Near Moon’s South Pole is a must read & an excellent read. But like most Indian articles, it does not touch on the military & economic implications. It took an American analyst to consider economic-military implications by looking back 500 years to Spain’s funding of Columbus to find a way to India via western oceans.

Military & Geopolitical Implications

Who can understand the long term strategic implications of such crazy “moonshot” type voyages than American geostrategists? After all, America was discovered because Spain funded an expensive but seemingly crazy mission to sail via the Western ocean to find an alternate route to India.

In an article titled Going to the Moon and Going to India, Dr. George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures  points out,

  • “The traditional route from India to Europe had been disrupted by the Ottoman conquest of Turkey and the accompanying increases in tariffs (& people blame President Trump for his tariffs!). This shifted the economic process in Europe, and any nation that found another path to India would prosper enormously from the trade, with the added benefit of weakening the Ottomans.”

Portugal was the first to succeed by finding the southern tip of Africa, navigating around it and through the Indian Ocean to India itself, landing in 1498.

  • “That frightened the Spaniards.  …  That’s why they were prepared to invest in Columbus’ risky voyage. When Columbus reached what he thought was India, he found very little of value there. … But in due course, with further exploration that was far less risky than Columbus’, the Spanish discovered the Incas in the Andes and the Aztecs in Mexico, both wealthy with gold and silver. The Spaniards conquered them (with disease as well as guns), took their wealth, and defeated Portugal in the race to wealth and power.”

Cute but what relevance does this have to the missions to Moon’s south side? Friedman writes,

  • “As I argued in my recent piece on command of the seas, space is now the key to military power. And that means that space is now a potential battleground. Control of space will depend on strategic depth. If space is the key to military dominance, then nations will move beyond extremely vulnerable satellites – a few key satellites for GPS and communications control may not survive a major conflict. The moon, then, becomes a strategic asset. Its military use is unclear at this point, but it is emerging. On the moon, it is possible to dig in and secure assets in ways that can’t be done in orbit. This means that a manned presence on the moon may well happen again, for the same reason that Spain continued its maritime exploration program: to build national power.”

And all this is now potentially relevant with the discovery of water & ice on the moon’s south pole. With water, it is possible to imagine building a base staffed with some humans. With local ability to make rocket propellent, such a base can maintain physical communication with the Earthly headquarters.

But Spain’s surge onto the oceans was driven by pursuit of economic gain and a national competition with Portugal. So what is the economic goal of trying to build a base on the moon? Dr. Friedman has conjectured that 

  • “the value of space is unlimited solar power (which can be collected and returned to Earth as microwaves and then transferred into the electrical grid). … Space-based solar power is much more efficient than Earth-based systems, which must deal with night and clouds. “

Frankly, who knows what bright minds of tomorrow can imagine & construct on the moon. But nothing would even be thinkable without the presence of water & ice on the moon. That is why the world’s scientists, military analysts and Jeff Bezos & company are intensely interested in whether India’s Chandra-Yaan-2 can land in between south side craters of the moon and in the data it sends back.

Because if humans can harness that water on the south side of the moon, then so many possibilities can emerge for both economic & military benefit. Purists can turn up their noses & express their contempt about such considerations. But they should read and understand the last line in Dr. Friedman’s article Going to the Moon and Going to India:

  • Columbus did not come to America to build knowledge. He came for money, and Spain funded him for wealth and power.

 

 

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