India's Chandryaan I lunar probe has apparently prematurely shut down, according to officials at the Indian Space Research Organization. The satellite has been orbiting the moon since November, taking images of the surface and conducting a series of experiments, including payloads for the European Space Agency, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (very cool) and a NASA payload designed to study the lunar surface for certain minerals and chemicals.
Indian space officials sought to put a good face on the unexpected termination by modestly boasting that their satellite survived the journey from the earth to the moon and sent data back for almost a full year, all at the government space program bargain price of roughly $80 million dollars.
On one level the Indian space officials are right even though the satellite was expected to last at least another full year. The program sent back over 70,000 images and certainly shows a high level of sophistication in command and control. Mission accomplishments include the successful launch, deployment in lunar orbit and return of data.
Next up is the Chandrayaan II, which is being designed to deploy a rover on the lunar surface. And after that an unmanned Mars mission is being readied.
But here's the rub: sending spacecraft hurtling out of low-earth orbit remains a dicey undertaking, even for the nation that boasts the largest number of software engineers and growing sophistication in space hardware. And the Indian disappointment comes on the heels of South Korea's second stage launch failure. I point these out because it has become fashionable to speak of a new race to the moon, this time involving the latest generation of spacefaring nations, ranging from Japan to India to China to South Korea.
What bothers me is that we in America are supposed to respond to this perceived threat, as if it is both a reality and an assault on our technological leadership. Neither is the case. Nor do I believe that the case has been made that any nation, including China, has the political fortitude to spend the funds on a manned mission to the Moon, without the involvement of other industrial nations.
Here's what I think: if we elect to return to the Moon, these regional powerhouses will want to contribute. And that's good. But if NASA elects not to go to the Moon in the next decade, the Asian space race will take unpredictable twists and turns, but will not mimic, nor should it, the superpower competition of the cold war. Those days are long gone.