The discovery of significant quantities of water on the surface of the Moon by India’s first unmanned lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 is certainly something to celebrate. This is remarkable for two reasons: first because it has rekindled the dream of establishing a manned Moon base and further exploration deeper into space, particularly to Mars, and second, because it was the result not of a NASA lunar mission, but an Indian one.
Scientists have been baffled for four decades by the fact that rock samples brought back from the moon by the Apollo lunar missions showed evidence of the existence of water on the Moon. They were not sure if this was because there was water on the Moon or that this was the result of contamination from the Earth’s atmosphere. Now there is no question: water ice exists on the Moon – the ‘holy grail for lunar scientists for a very long time’, as Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington put it. In a statement put out by NASA, he went on to explain how this extraordinary discovery came about:
“This surprising finding has come about through the ingenuity, perseverance and international cooperation between NASA and the India Space Research Organization.”
This cooperation was significant: NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3, instrument reported the observations. It was carried into space on Oct. 22, 2008, aboard the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Data from the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, or VIMS, on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, and the High-Resolution Infrared Imaging Spectrometer on NASA’s Epoxi spacecraft contributed to confirmation of the finding. The spacecraft imaging spectrometers made it possible to map lunar water more effectively than ever before.
So while NASA still played a significant role in this discovery, the fact that it was an Indian spacecraft is equally significant. India’s lunar programme is a result of the space race emerging between it and China. But whatever the domestic motivations underlying this competition, it highlights how significantly the space exploration field has shifted from West to East. While President Obama contemplates cutting back spending on the US space effort, India and China are surging ahead. We are thus in an era of transition: while a lot of the specialised technological innovation remains the preserve of NASA (given its past investment, innovation and experience), the drive towards pushing the boundaries of exploration are now increasingly coming from the East.
This reflects the global shift in economic power from West to East which the current recession has so sharply brought into focus. But more pertinent for the future of innovation, it reveals that this is now accompanied by a significant shift in Eastern aspirations, vision, and a willingness to take risks and push the boundaries of the known further. It suggests that in the same way that the US Space Programme had the unexpected outcome of solving thousands of problems for humanity in the 20th century (see NASA’s spin-off site here), the future of unexpected innovations and problem solving will increasingly come from the East this Century. But far from this representing a problem or being seen as a threat, this should be welcomed, and regarded, as Rob Killick succinctly argues, as an inspiration to us all.