Washington: India, which is a global power and one of the few countries with independent access to space, needs to be a part of the Artemis team, which brings like-minded countries together on civil space exploration, a top NASA official has said.
Grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (OST), the Artemis Accords are a non-binding set of principles designed to guide civil space exploration and use in the 21st century. It is an American-led effort to return humans to the moon by 2025, with the ultimate goal of expanding space exploration to Mars and beyond.
Bhavya Lal, the associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy within the office of the NASA Administrator, told PTI on Friday that as of May 2023, there are 25 signatories to the Artemis Accords and hoped that India becomes the 26th country.
“I think signing Artemis Accords should be a priority (for India). I mean, NASA feels pretty strongly that India, it’s a global power. It’s one of the few countries with independent access to space, has a thriving launch industry, has been to the moon, has been to Mars, it needs to be part of the Artemis team,” she said.
“It’s about how we make sure space remains sustainable for future generations. So, I think the benefit is that like-minded countries who have similar values have a chance to explore together,” Lal said.
The benefit is that India declares that they are a global space power and value things like sustainable exploration, responsible use of space, cooperation, transparency, she said.
Lal, who was born in Mathura and grew up in New Delhi, previously served as the acting chief technologist of NASA and was the first woman to hold the position in over 60 years of NASA’s history.
Prior to her current role and in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, Lal was the acting chief of staff at NASA and directed the agency’s transition under the administration of President Joe Biden.
Lal said India and the US need to do more in the Artemis programme and do more things on the moon together. “We actually recently set up a human space flight working group. The goal of that group is to develop strategies for what we should be doing and how. I wish that team much success in coming up with tangible opportunities to collaborate,” she said.
“Nisar (NASA ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) is supposed to be launched early next year. I hope it’s on track,” said the highest-ranking Indian American in NASA said ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit next week.
Prime Minister Modi arrives here next week on an Official State Visit at the invitation of President Biden, during which space collaboration and related issues are expected to be one of the major areas of discussions.
India and the US recently set up a human space flight working group under their Initiative of Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) Dialogue.
Lal hoped that India will become part of the community that hunts down asteroids and comets that might impact Earth and cause much distraction.
“I am excited about all of the things that are coming down. NISAR, Chandrayan 3 this July, and Aditya mission again. That’s also this year. The upcoming Gaganyaan missions. Lupex (Lunar Polar Exploration mission) mission with Japan. India has these collaborations everywhere, not just with the United States, with Japan, with France,” she said.
“I’m most excited about India’s human space flight programme because once India has a presence in lower earth orbit… We can take cargo to each other’s stations. We can take the crew to each other. It’s just going to be so exciting to have multiple space stations in Low Earth orbit, and it’s truly going to be a human being in space,” Lal said.
Over the years there have been ups and downs in India-US space collaboration. Initially, India focused more on collaborating with the Soviet Union.
“But then, I think the two thousand collaborations have been quite strong. On science missions, on human space flight missions, India kind of started off as a junior partner, a lot of capacity building,” Lal said, adding that over the years, India has proved itself to be equally competent in every way.
“The NISAR missions are a good example. India has an instrument. The United States has an instrument, and it’s truly a collaboration of equals. So that’s kind of how I see evolution. And going forward I think we will be on the critical path for India’s missions. India will be in the critical path for US missions, and we will be true partners,” Lal said.
Noting that the Gaganyaan mission is, for now, only a space capsule, the NASA official said, at some point, India will have a space station.
“That’s the next step. Even with Gaganyaan I think there are opportunities to dock with the space station, to take cargo to the space station, to take astronauts to the space station, and just to prepare India for a future in low Earth orbit, NASA can do a lot. For example, train astronauts,” she said.
“So lower orbit, tons of collaboration opportunities on human space flight. On science, we have been collaborating for a long time. NISAR is a very exciting collaboration. One that I’m really excited about is collaborating on the moon. India can have rovers and landers,” Lal said.
Noting that NASA hames a programme called CLIPS, commercial lunar payload services, Lal said there could be a lot of opportunities for private companies in India to collaborate with these CLIPS providers and private companies in the US.
That will help both countries take up the private sector game, she said.
“Planetary defense is a great area for collaboration. It is something that we are all in it together. Sixty-five million years ago, there was an asteroid that basically destroyed all non-avian life on earth. We do not want things like that happening again,” Lal said.
“The way to do that is to constantly be looking and seeing what’s coming next. A few months ago, NASA had a mission called Dart, where we hit a small asteroid and it was a test and we moved it, but we could only move what we can see,” she said.
Lal, who came to the US as an undergraduate student at MIT, said she wanted to study new nuclear engineering and then got a Nobel Prize.
“The first thing I learned was you don’t get a Nobel Prize in engineering. So right off the bat, there was big disappointment,” she said.
“I had major cultural challenges when I came. Even though I spoke English, I had so much trouble with the accent…So, it took me a while to understand,” she said..