Stars Aligning As Indo-US Space Partnership Reaches New Orbit: Envoy Eric Garcetti

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US envoy Eric Garcetti announced a new US-India Cancer Moonshot initiative

New Delhi:

The sky is not the limit for the burgeoning space technology relations between the world’s largest democracy India and the oldest democracy – the United States of America. Speaking to NDTV, US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti said, “The stars are aligning, as India and USA are like buddies in space!” 

“‘Do desh, alag riwaz, lekin do desh, ek dil (two nations with different customs but with a single heart)’,” he added.

India and US will go to “infinity and beyond together”, the US Ambassador said in an exclusive interview with NDTV.

Speaking about astronaut Sunita Williams who is in orbit at the International Space Station, Mr Garcetti said, “She is excited to have a few extra days. She represents the unique bridge between India and the US and will be back on Earth.” 

In a few weeks, ISRO’s first heavy-weight communications satellite will lift off from America on SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket. Later this year the world’s single most expensive civilian Earth-imaging satellite, jointly made by NASA and ISRO, could liftoff from India. It costs well over $1.2 billion and will help monitor climate change among other things.

Early next year, India’s first Gaganyatri or astronaut could be visiting the International Space Station on an Indo-US friendship mission.

Meanwhile, Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams is already orbiting the Earth at the International Space Station where she flew onboard the Boeing Starliner’s maiden test flight on June 5, 2024. She has specially ordered “fish curry” as one of her favorite meals on her third space voyage that will last longer than initially planned.

“US-India Space Cooperation” is the theme of this year’s American National Day celebration and Mr Garcetti was speaking on the sidelines of an exhibition showcasing Indian and American achievements in space. At the event, the food served had a similar flavor – drinks named Starry Night Spritzer, Interstellar Fusion, and Black Hole Bliss were served – and conversations revolved around “Star Trek”, “Star Wars”, and the successful soft landing at the Shiv Shakti point by India’s Chandrayaan-3.

Mr Garcetti also announced a new US-India Cancer Moonshot initiative to develop an AI-enabled digital pathology platform for better cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The US was a part of India’s maiden foray into space with the launch of the Nike-Apache sounding rocket from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station on November 21, 1963. This launch set India’s ball rolling to explore the interstellar space. India’s first heavy-duty commercial communications satellite INSAT-1A was made by Ford Aerospace and launched from Cape Canaveral, USA with a contract with NASA using the Delta rocket in 1982.

The Indo-US Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), was hailed as ‘the largest sociological experiment in the world’ by ISRO during 1975-76. This experiment benefited around two lakh people, covering 2,400 villages in six states, and transmitted development-oriented programmes using the American Technology Satellite (ATS-6). This was truly the forerunner to satellite-based TV broadcasting.

Subsequently, the Indo-US relations took a hit twice – first in 1974 and then in 1998 when India tested atomic weapons at Pokhran and almost all high-technology cooperation came to a standstill, till the two countries normalised the relations with the signing of the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008. Since then relations have only been taking a higher and higher orbit. 

India’s Chandrayaan-1 orbiter in 2008 saw India accommodating NASA instruments. The mission discovered water molecules on the lunar surface.

Most recently, as part of the India-US initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) on June 17, the Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and his US counterpart Jake Sullivan affirmed that two countries will be “reaching new heights in civilian and defense space technology cooperation”.

The forward-looking joint statement highlighted several steps like:

1) Securing a carrier for the first-ever joint effort between NASA and ISRO astronauts at the International Space Station, which will mark a significant milestone in the India-U.S. space partnership and space exploration

2) Celebrating the conclusion of a Strategic Framework for Human Spaceflight Cooperation to deepen interoperability in space and work toward commencing advanced training for ISRO astronauts at the NASA Johnson Space Center

3) Preparing for the launch of the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar, a jointly developed satellite that will map the entirety of the Earth’s surface twice every 12 days as India and the United States work together to combat climate change and other global challenges

4) Launching a new partnership between the U.S. Space Force and the Indian startups, 114ai and 3rdiTech, including on advancing space situational awareness, data fusion technologies, and infra-red sensor semiconductor manufacturing

5) Welcoming India’s observation of the U.S. Space Command’s Global Sentinel Exercise at Vandenburg Space Force Base in February and its return as a participant in the exercise in 2025

6) Strengthening defense space cooperation through the second Advanced Domains Defense Dialogue held at the Pentagon in May 2024, which featured an India-U.S. space table-top exercise and included bilateral expert exchanges on emerging domains including artificial intelligence

7) Exploring opportunities for India’s participation in the Lunar Gateway Program, as well as joint avenues for collaboration in other space technologies

Indian Gaganyatri In Space Station Next Year

The ISRO’s work to send an astronaut to space in a joint project with NASA is progressing, the Indian agency’s chief Dr S Somanath told NDTV.

Of the four astronauts India has chosen, two will be sent to the commercial crew program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for training, and one of them will be selected to go on the actual space mission, Dr Somanath said.

“Similarly, the other two astronaut designates will also get training of a different kind… So all four of them will go through certain levels of training through this programme. Many Indian engineers will also be trained by NASA to handle other aspects of space flight,” Dr Somanath said.

The ISRO’s eventual goal is independent human space flight, and the learnings from the whole programme with NASA will feed into the Indian space agency’s experience in finally sending humans to space from India.

ISRO’s choice of sending an Indian to space is limited to only SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon programmes. Explaining this, Dr Somanath said the whole programme is based on the idea of working together with NASA as the US space agency offered a seat to an Indian astronaut to fly to the International Space Station, adding that NASA offered India a seat from its available opportunities.

This flourishing Indo-US space collaboration may extend to the two countries launching missions to explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

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