The Other Space Race: China and India

The Other Space Race: China and India

In the past decades, blogs and news sites have posted many, many stories of the space race between China and the United States. I’ve provided a few analyses (with data support) about why I believe those stories are fertilizer from bulls. However, has anyone heard about the space race between India and China (according to WION)?

On Your Mark!

There’s a history of antagonism between those two nations, so perhaps the rise of that kind of story is unsurprising. And, at least to Indians, that story might ring true since the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has many accomplishments under its belt. 

First, it’s one of the few nations with an operational spaceport for orbital launches. It has several rockets that it launches, with its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) as one of the more reliable launch systems in the world. It has comprehensive research and development centers full of intelligent people who have accomplished remarkable things for India’s space programs. 

One of those achievements was safely landing Vikram on the Moon and then deploying a lunar rover (Pragyan) earlier this year, which validated the Chandrayaan-3 program. The ISRO continues working on launching its astronauts into space through its Gaganyaan program. It’s accomplishing these inexpensively, too–a philosophical difference that other space agencies should at least consider ($75 million for Chandrayaan-3).

So, reasonable justifications exist for feeling good about India’s place in the global space economy. But the WION writer relies on more than those to justify the existence of a space race between China and India. First, there are some hurt feelings. ISRO scientists were clear about where the Vikram lander was supposed to land and provided the desired coordinates “near the Moon’s south pole.” 

The repeated story simplified that goal incorrectly to being at the Moon’s south pole. And so one of China’s scientists provided the expected “Well…actually…” and noted that Vikram hadn’t landed in the south pole. Because people think in Twitter form, don’t read, etc., that assertion from a scientist in China somehow called into question all of India’s space achievements? Which then results in hurt feelings and defensive statements.

The second reason provided for India’s ascendancy in the space race is the citation of a zombie number about a growing global space economy from another consulting firm. Without getting into that consulting firm’s bonafide, the number that depicts an ever-increasing space economy seems a bit unambitious, more in line with inflation and small percentage growth rates. In other words, it’s not the best reason for proving a nation’s aggressive growth. 

The final reason provided for India’s entry into a space race with China is what Starlink is supposed to portend:

“...the demand for high-speed internet (sourced from satellites) has resulted in launch of private satellites as a prosperous revenue-making exercise for space enterprises and agencies.”

Yes, thousands of internet relay satellites have been deployed, mainly in the form of Starlink. The writer believes that India’s rockets can provide a good compromise for companies that need to launch large constellations like Starlink. Those companies daren’t use rockets from China because of inadvertent technology transfer concerns (maybe even deliberate collection of technology secrets). The writer singles out i-space (aka Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Co., Ltd.) as an example of a struggling commercial launch company in China, probably because most of its launches have failed. 

On the other hand, SpaceX’s offerings might also be out of reach for various reasons, which is where India’s companies step in. India’s launches cost less, and its space companies are doing “exceedingly well.” All point to India’s space industry as healthy and active, and I tend to agree. But in a “space race” context, how do India’s space activities compare with China? 

No Contest

In 2023 (through Oct 9), China’s companies and organizations have conducted 45 launches. Only seven launches have been conducted from India during the same time. 

2023 Launches from China and India

Worse for India, China’s inventory of operational rockets in 2023 alone is much larger than the three, maybe four, of India’s rocket families (LVM3 is the newest version of the GSLV) used during the same year. This fact is even after consolidating the CZ-2/CZ-3/CZ-4 rocket types from China.

2023 Comparison of Rockets Used

Note that a commercial rocket, the Ceres-1, operated by Galactic Energy, had five successful launches this year–better than i-space. The last and sixth Ceres-1 launch failed, but that company’s launch record in 2023 is decent for smallsat launchers. Also, that’s one failure out of 46 launch attempts in China, which isn’t terrible.

Seven launches are more than Arianespace’s three in 2023, but does that mean that India’s rockets could support more than seven launches annually? Based on the past five years of data, the annual launch cadence average for India’s rockets is about four. That average doesn’t assure that India’s space industry is ready to launch additional rockets, especially for those companies with plans to launch hundreds or thousands of satellites. Perhaps these rockets are inexpensive, but people will find alternatives if they aren’t available.

So far, based on launches and rockets alone, the “space race” between China and India isn’t going so well for India. And while there’s evidence that more space companies exist in that country than ever, they will not contribute to extra launch capacity for quite a few years, if ever. 

Maybe there’s some solace to be found in spacecraft deployments? Except…about 35 operators in China deployed nearly 170 spacecraft in 2023. India’s three operators deployed seven. So, no...not yet.

The Commercial Option

If there’s a promising sparkle in India’s space activities compared with China, it’s the government policies that have recently been implemented. Certainly, there are commercial companies in China in many aspects of space, such as launch services and satellite manufacturing. Those companies have had an early lead on their Indian counterparts, as seen in the numbers, but that might change. 

An earlier analysis goes into those details, but in summary, the Indian government is putting in commercialization efforts and attempting to get non-government entities interested in doing something with space. 

While it’s too early to jump to conclusions (as WION seems to have done), more Indian space companies exist today than at any other time since India’s space entry. Like the U.S., most appear to be “CAD companies.” They don’t have any other product than the visual on the screen. But, if it’s like the U.S., Indian space companies will eventually come forth with authentic products and services. If that happens, perhaps an Indian company will arise that provides competition against SpaceX (because no U.S. company appears able to). 

To say that India is in a space race with China is a bit–optimistic. But India is accomplishing things that nations and international partnerships with more resources seem to be struggling with, and at less expense: space vehicle development and launching, moon missions, human spaceflight, navigation, and more. Those accomplishments are the groundwork for something more.

When that happens, the race is on.