Once “estranged democracies,” India and America are now seeking to leap together into the next big frontier of space exploration. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of America, the world’s foremost space exploration agency, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) are today engaged in an intense dialogue to explore space. It is not widely known that fifty years ago, India’s very first rocket launch from Thumba in Kerala was of an American-made Nike Apache rocket. However, ties soured soon thereafter with sanctions and technology denial, culminating in the US intervening to pre-empt the sale of cryogenic engine technology to India. The tide is now turning. The current Administrator of NASA General Charles Bolden gave an extended exclusive interview to Pallava Bagla at the NASA headquarters, and explained how the agency was supporting India’s upcoming maiden mission to Mars, hoping to make “spy satellites” together, as well as collaborating in the future to “nudge” away earth-threatening asteroids.
You have an Indian mission to Mars later this year called Mangalyaan or the Mars Orbiting Mission. You also have the upcoming MAVEN mission from NASA. Both are missions to study the atmosphere of mars. Is it exciting to have two countries independently and simultaneously going to Mars?
It's always exciting to have as many countries as possible participating in exploration efforts, particularly in Mars. We were there with Curiosity, and we were able to carry along five other nations with us. It is exciting to have the United States and India join together and now getting ready to do more studies on Mars's atmosphere with MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) that we are launching later in November looking at the upper atmosphere of Mars, a place that we don't know a lot about. The Indian mission is also going to be looking at Martian atmosphere. We're providing support through communications, data and other types of telemetry.
So NASA is supporting India in the mission?
We are in partnership. We're providing communication support as well as navigation support, so it is fantastic.
If you look at the Indian program, the first rocket which was fired from India, the Nike Apache, was an American rocket. The first commercial communication satellite – INSAT-1A - was made in America, launched from America. After that came the nuclear explosions which strained the relationship between both countries, and there was a long hiatus. Do you feel disappointed that there was a long hiatus in the space ties between the two countries?
That was history and what I think is most important is that the two countries have been able to get back on track to working together. We need to collectively show that democracies get things done much more effectively than other forms of government, and the fact that with common goals and aspirations, the world's oldest and largest democracy can work together. If you look at what we have done co-cooperatively, India and the United States participated together on Chandrayaan-1, orbiting the moon, and gathering data. Chandrayaan-1 discovered significant amounts of water on the lunar surface.
India's space agency works on a shoe string annual budget of one billion dollars, in contrast NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover alone cost about 2 billion dollars. You've visited some of these facilities in ISRO, what was your impression of the personnel and the facilities?
Recently I went to Delhi and then to Ahmedabad; it was an incredible experience to visit ISRO’s [Space Application] Centre and to look at the satellites that were under construction and the missions that were in planning and to look at the commonality between the things that we do in the field of science, especially in environmental science, looking at water issues. I was very impressed with the facilities, I got a chance to see two or three different clean rooms and look at 3 different types of missions under construction right now; in all, it was an impressive operation.
I also understand NASA is forbidden by law from working with China?
On the Indo-US space exploration front, there seems to be a thawing of relations. You're looking at making a Radarsat (referred to in lay parlance as a spy satellite machine with day and night viewing capability) together. What is the status of that mission?
Well, we're continuing to work with ISRO. There are a number of different satellites in different bandwidths that we're looking at: L-band is most prominent for us right now because it will potentially enable us to look at what we call the shifting of Earth, what causes earthquakes.
NASA is today focused on studying asteroids -can we expect Indo-US collaboration on the early detection of “earth-threating” asteroids
ISRO is excited about NASA’s asteroid initiative. What we would like to do cooperatively with India, is the identification and characterization of as many earth-threatening asteroids as possible, through ground detectors or space-borne detectors. Next would be to rendezvous with an asteroid inbound to earth, to actually either capture that asteroid so that we can gradually steer it away.
Do you worry there could be a situation where wars are fought in space?
Yes, anybody would be naive not to be concerned that some nation could become misguided and determined to militarise outer space.
People always want to know about extra-terrestrial (ET) life. On your four space flights, did you look out of the window of the Space Shuttle to spot an ET?
Every single flight, I was looking for ET! You're always hopeful, that you will be able to contribute to answering the question, are we alone? which is the age old question for humanity or is there a life elsewhere in our universe. I would love to be the first to find some evidence that there is life elsewhere in our universe, but as yet no evidence of ET though.
(Pallava Bagla is Science Editor for New Delhi Television and correspondent for SCIENCE. Views expressed here are personal. He can be reached at Pallava.firstname.lastname@example.org)