Skip to content

A New Lunar Odyssey: A Discussion on India’s New Space Renaissance

By Emma McMullan* 

On October 4th, 2023,  Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Director of the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India, joined the Rethinking Diplomacy Program’s Space Diplomacy Lab (SDL) to discuss India’s burgeoning role as a leader in the future of space exploration and space policy. The event was co-organized by the SDL in collaboration with the Duke India Initiative and the Sanford School of Public Policy.  

Dr. Giovanni Zanalda, Duke director of the Rethinking Diplomacy Program and co-founder of the SDL, explained that the event is part of A New Lunar Odyssey, an SDL series of events and webinars focused on major spacefaring nations’ lunar programs. The series aims to better understand the increasingly complex frontier of lunar exploration with a particular focus on the diplomatic implications of governments’ programs and private corporations’ projects in their attempts to establish a long-term presence on the lunar surface for scientific and commercial purposes. 

In late August 2023, India joined the ranks of the United States, Russia, and China as the fourth nation to successfully land on the moon. Led by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the historic south pole region touchdown — a notable first in lunar exploration— gives India first access to the exploration of frozen water on the Moon, further elevating India’s profile as a major world leader and spacefaring nation.  

In the years since Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, several crewed and uncrewed space missions  have explored  the lunar surface, led primarily by the United States and China. Recently, both the United States and China have announced ambitious plans to increase their lunar activities and lay the groundwork for maintaining a permanent human presence on the moon and beyond 

“India cannot afford to be left behind,” Dr. Rajagopalan explained. Increased investments and competition between U.S. and Chinese space programs has sparked considerable  advancement in the sector, reinvigorating interests in the establishment of commercial and scientific operations on the moon. She noted that historically, the high cost of lunar landing programs compared to the perceived economic, geopolitical, and scientific benefits made large-scale programs impractical for most countries. Advancements in space technology has  driven down costs and shifted interests back to space  reinforcing  the value and feasibility of these programs for more nations  

Dr. Rajagopalan also noted that “the changing balance of power dynamics in the region, along with troubled histories among key Asian powers are likely to lead competition in the outer space domain.” Though China has reiterated that its lunar program is a peaceful one, neighboring nations remain skeptical. National security concerns vis a vis China and a desire for a more open and collaborative relationship has led India to seek out partnerships with other space-faring Asian nations such as Japan. 

Dr. Benjamin L. Schmitt, an astrophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the SDL, asked the guest speaker about India’s main motivation for becoming a signatory to the Artemis Accords in June 2023, a shift from India’s historical positions of space neutrality and from India’s preference for multilateral agreements.  The Artemis Accords is a U.S. led multilateral non-binding agreement aimed at setting space norms prior to the return of humans to the moon later this decade and, more in general, to establish norms to facilitate safe, transparent, and sustainable outer space activities.  

Dr. Rajagopalan emphasized that India’s decision hinged on two primary factors: geopolitical considerations and the aspiration to shape international norms. As India continues to assert  itself as a major world power its participation in the Artemis Accords positions the country within a select group of nations leading the way in establishing the rules and norms of responsible space conduct. Given the increasingly complex and diverse activities unfolding in the space sector, involving private entities, educational institutions, and nations, India recognizes the pressing need for alternative governance pathways. By joining Artemis nations, India is better positioned to shape future policies that can help secure a peaceful and sustainable future for humanity in space. 

Amidst escalating geopolitical tensions, joining China-Russia led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) is not a feasible option for India. “US-India relations have gone through sort of a transformative change in the last decade and a half,” Dr. Rajagopolan notes. With India’s strong relationships with U.S.  allies — such as Japan and Australia — and as U.S.-India priorities become increasingly aligned, the Artemis Accords are more closely aligned with India’s broader strategic vision for economic development and international security cooperation.  

Ambassador (ret.) Bob Pearson, a senior fellow with the Rethinking Diplomacy Program, and former Director General of the U.S. Foreign Service congratulated India on its recent accomplishment and acknowledged its role as a leader in the space domain. In January 2022, Ambassador Pearson coauthored an article in Foreign Policy calling for  an international space summit. Looking to history, Ambassador Pearson stressed the dangers of  “countries competing without restraints.”  With India’s recent success as host of the 2023 G20 Summit —  Ambassador Pearson suggested that India may be well positioned to act as one of the conveners for such an event.  

Dr. Rajagopalan concurred, highlighting India’s unique position as both a major world power and member of the global south, which could facilitate the development of concrete space governance measures that take the voices of smaller spacefaring nations and non-spacefaring nations into account. With global economies, scientific discovery, climate monitoring, and communications increasingly reliant on space technologies, space domain issues touch every human being on the planet. 

Citing Dr. Rajagopalan’s work in nuclear non-proliferation, Dr. Lyndsay Gray, an RDP Affiliate Fellow and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science Policy Fellow at the US State Department, asked whether there were any lessons the international community might learn from her experience studying and working with policy makers and diplomats in India and the UN to build effective nuclear arms control policies, noting that in recent years, NASA has called for fission surface power and nuclear power on the moon. Additionally, the moon’s rich Helium-3 deposits — a critical resource in both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons production — stressing the importance of developing pathways to prevent the weaponization of space technologies and lunar resources. 

Dr. Rajagopalan  suggested that space actors take cues from the Nuclear Security Summits, convened by the U.S. in  the 2010s. These summits initiated important dialogues between nations that resulted in security commitments that have aided in the process of securing nuclear materials globally. The same could be done in negotiating rules and norms in the space domain. 

The Space Diplomacy Lab agrees. A space summit would allow scientists, companies, governments, and civil society to share their space development goals and concerns about emerging technologies and increasing geopolitical competition in an international forum, raising public awareness of the importance of establishing rules and norms for human activities in near Earth orbit and beyond to ensure a sustainable future for humanity in space. The question is, which spacefaring nation will take the lead in organizing the summit?   

This event was part of a Space Diplomacy Lab webinar series organized by the Rethinking Diplomacy Program, co-sponsored by the Duke India Initiative and the Sanford School of Public Policy. The Rethinking Diplomacy Program is supported by a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund. 

* Emma McMullan, a National Science Policy Network (NSPN) Fellow in the Space Diplomacy Lab, is expected to earn a Bachelor of Science in Physics, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Georgia State University in 2025.