China and India: putting the space race before the human race?

Sunday 18 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Garden Room, Barbican International Battles

In 1969, the whole world stopped to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. But the first decades of the ‘space race’ were arguably the Cold War by proxy, with the USA and USSR having a near monopoly on attempts to cross the ‘final frontier’.

But in recent years, both China and India have broken into the space club. After many years of testing rockets, capsules and landing technology, the first manned Chinese space mission was Shenzhou 5 in 2003. Since then, China has begun developing the technology for a space station and announced plans for a Mars programme, aiming to send taikonauts to the Red Planet by mid-century. India’s first astronaut took part in a Soviet Soyuz flight in 1984. In 2008, Chandrayaan-1 landed a probe on the moon and the India’s Mars Orbiter has been in orbit around Mars since September 2014, with India’s prime minister joking that the project had cost less than Hollywood space drama Gravity.

Yet many commentators argue that exploring space is a waste of time for rich countries and even worse for poor ones. Developing countries in Africa and South America are now looking for their own space programmes – not necessarily for space exploration, but for Earth observation purposes. Does it really make sense for countries that are still poor to get involved in a new space race? Or does that question miss the point? The early years of space rockets and satellite technologies have become the bedrock of global communications. The Global Navigation Satellites Services (GNSS) or the USA’s GPS system are now an essential aid to navigation, even down to the smartphones in our hands. Intangible benefits also come from the inspiration that space travel provides, too. The moon landings are at the top of any list of incredible human achievements, showing anything is possible if we put our minds to it. For developing countries, the fact that they can now have their own space programmes is testament to the idea that they have ‘arrived’.

Should countries with hundreds of millions of people living in poverty be devoting resources to space travel? Should any country be considering investing in space activities when there are so many problems to solve here on Earth? Or do space programmes represent a long-term investment with economic, technological and even spiritual benefits?

Listen to the debate

Sam Adlen
head of business innovation, Satellite Applications Catapult

Ashley Dove-Jay
aerospace engineer; popular science writer; Urban Spaceman columnist, Bristol Post

Rob Elsworth
policy analyst - climate and energy, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD)

Colin McInnes
James Watt Chair, Professor of Engineering Science, University of Glasgow

Angela Saini
science journalist; author, Geek Nation: how Indian science is taking over the world

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer
Recommended readings
Space Policy in Developing Countries: The Search for Security and Development on the Final Frontier

R. C. Harding, Routledge, 7 July 2015

India’s marvellous mission to Mars Sadhvi Sharma, spiked, 20 November 2014

The space race goes East Patrick Hayes, spiked, 23 December 2013

Poor countries want space programs more than rich ones do Akshat Rathi, Ars Technica,, 11 May 2013

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