A new success: On collaboration in space programmes

Space is an area that necessitates expansive collaboration

Moon landings are picking up pace for the second time in history, but now with more countries and novel definitions of success in the mix. Chandrayaan-3’s soft-landing confirmed that the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) understanding of the technologies and processes involved and the choices it made — as an impressive space research and flight provider emerging from colonial shadows — are correct. Similarly, the failure of the Luna 25 mission would have taught Russia’s Roscosmos something about what it got wrong, particularly as a space agency whose reputation is on the wane after spectacular highs. On February 22, U.S.-based Intuitive Machines (IM) became the first private company to soft-land a robotic craft on the moon. The success of many space service providers in the U.S. is rooted in crucial support from NASA in their formative years. This is true in IM’s case as well, but with important distinctions. IM launched its Odysseus lander to the moon as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, through which the agency is funding instruments onboard commercial missions to the moon hoping their findings will ease NASA’s eventual return to the natural satellite. IM’s Odysseus itself had a rocky last leg of the journey: as its descent got under way, the lander’s navigation instruments glitched, forcing IM engineers to quickly cobble together a fix and transmit it to the craft, instructing it to switch to an experimental NASA instrument onboard. After this hotfix, Odysseus appeared to have soft landed, but no confirmation was readily forthcoming due to a weak data link between the craft and antennae on the earth. The next day, IM said Odysseus may have tipped over but without consequence to most of its payloads, including six from NASA, and solar panels.

IM’s success testifies to the potential of the CLPS programme and could help extend it in future. NASA’s say in CLPS missions is limited to flagging interesting landing sites and providing some payloads. By 2020, it had contracted 14 companies to bid on missions, with its purse size of $2.6 billion. For the devolution of such critical responsibilities to be possible in any country, it needs, as the U.S. possesses, a healthy and diversified private space service landscape. This is the value of IM’s success within the context of the U.S. space programme. India recently approved up to 100% automatic foreign direct investment in parts of its national space programme, potentially paving the way for healthy competition among Indian start-ups to ease ISRO’s burden in future. Space is an area that necessitates expansive collaboration, among nations and within them.