Why you should care

These are the new poster children of a program once dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union.

When an Indian rocket lifted off on the morning of June 23 bearing 31 satellites, the country’s prime minister and president were ready with congratulatory messages for their space scientists. But the world was watching too.

The U.S., U.K., Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Belgium were some of the advanced countries whose satellites were among the 29 foreign ones that rode the Indian rocket off the launchpad. The launch wasn’t just a technological feat. It was also a bold expression of ambitions in space that are finding increasing resonance across Asia.

For decades, Cold War rivalries dominated space, fueling a race between the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union while other countries with more limited capabilities mostly watched from the sidelines. Now, a broader set of considerations is driving a fresh rush to low Earth orbit and beyond, this time from the world’s largest continent.

India, China and Japan are plotting major interplanetary missions while bringing in cash through an increasing focus on commercial launches for other countries. But others are making moves too. In August, Israel launched a microsatellite with France, part of the expansion of its space program beyond a traditional emphasis on espionage. Iran and North Korea are testing rockets as signals to regional and global rivals. Vietnam is setting up a satellite monitoring station. And the UAE is trying to simulate conditions on Mars by building a giant space city in the desert.

Space is now attracting the imagination of smaller countries.

Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency

One-upmanship is only a tiny part of the game now, say experts. Technology spin-offs and strategic gains are crucial. Space is a big market — one that’s currently worth an estimated $329 billion, according to the Space Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit. And for aspiring regional or global powers, success in space also means a boost to national pride.

“Space is now attracting the imagination of smaller countries,” says Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency, in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. “In the past, only the big powers were capable of setting standards in space. Not anymore.”

Some Asian countries — India, China and Japan — have had space programs for decades. But it’s only now that these programs are beginning to compete with those of the U.S. and Russia. India, which in 2014 became the first country to place a satellite in Martian orbit on its first attempt, is planning a second trip there for 2021. China is preparing a manned moon mission; its target date of 2036 shows the length of the country’s planning — and its ambitions. And in January 2018, Japan will launch a Mercury orbiter along with France.

Commerce is a crucial driver of these space programs. Between 1999 and July 2015, India launched a total of only 45 foreign satellites. Since then it has launched another 164. China is lapping up contracts from South American and African nations to launch their satellites, says Dublin-based space analyst and author Brian Harvey.

Others, like the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, are developing ancillary space industries that may be profitable down the line, says Ajay Lele of the New Delhi–based Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses. “They’re eyeing support services for the future — such as space hotels,” Lele says.

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An H-IIA rocket carrying the satellite Michibiki No. 3 blasts off from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre on August 19, 2017.

Source STR/Getty

Space is also an ideal laboratory for countries keen to ride technology toward modernization, Ben-Israel says. Out there, he adds, a product has to stay “100 percent functional, with zero maintenance, for long [periods].” For Asia’s smaller countries, Japan is an example. The industrial powerhouse wasn’t always known as a high-technology hub. It used its space program to develop electronics and manufacturing capabilities, Harvey says. Global household names like Sanyo and Toshiba cut their teeth on Japan’s space program. “That wasn’t an accident,” Harvey says. “If you can build high-quality rockets, you can probably make very good cars and TVs.”

For sure, hard strategic calculations behind the expansion of Asia’s space programs can’t be ignored. Though most experts concur that claims by Iran and North Korea over their recent satellite and missile launches are exaggerated, concerns linger, given the simmering tensions in West Asia and the Korean Peninsula. Iran, Ben-Israel insists, is developing missile-launch capabilities under the garb of its satellite program. North Korea too, Lele says, is developing its satellites from a “military perspective,” despite the mismatch between its rhetoric and its actual capabilities.

Still, there are softer factors at play. Countries are recognizing that success in space can serve as a tool to get their youth interested in science and engineering careers. The UAE space agency, for instance, is holding educational workshops with schools and inking agreements for joint research with universities. “You tell a 13-year-old boy or girl to take up science in high school, and they aren’t interested,” Ben-Israel says. “You tell them about space, and it’s suddenly different.”

Then there’s an intangible emotional gain for nations. On September 24, 2014, India’s $74 million Mars Orbiter Mission started orbiting the Red Planet. Four days later, during a visit to New York, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a diaspora gathering at Madison Square Garden that India’s Mars mission had cost less than the $100 million Hollywood had spent on producing the 2013 film Gravity. Raucous cheers filled the arena.

Expect more of that from Asia in the coming months and years. “Countries do feel very proud if they succeed in space,” Harvey says. “It goes to the core of their national prestige.”

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