Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the 15th Brics Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 24. Photo: EPA-EFE
At the “South-South” meeting of BRICS in Johannesburg, South Africa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had some exciting news to share with South African host Cyril Ramaphosa about the southern part of the moon. Modi can be seen in a video clip proudly telling his host that India had landed.
Modi- The south part of China…ah, the south part of the moon.
Ramaphosa- Of the moon? In the south part?
Modi- Yeah, in the south part. The first time.
An amusing slip of the tongue, perhaps. The Indian word for moon is Chandra and the name of the lunar mission is Chandrayaan, so it could be a pronunciation issue. But it’s a telling slip, as New Delhi’s primary obstacle to cooperation with Beijing is precisely the south part of China, where there have been fierce territorial clashes along the Sino-Indian border.
The inadvertent quip also gives cause to humbly reflect that humankind can land on the moon, including the south part of the moon near the lunar south pole, with greater ease and efficiency than it can settle disputed borders on the home planet.
Modi started out the Brics summit displeased at unequal treatment, since Xi Jinping was greeted at the airport by the president of South Africa wherein Modi only got a cabinet member. Whether it was India’s successful moon landing during the conference, which earned Modi some respect after being singled out by host Ramaphosa in front of the other leaders, or the host’s contagious charm is hard to tell, but a few days later Modi had signed onto an expansion of BRIC members which Xi Jinping and other BRIC leaders had been pushing for.
It’s a stellar achievement for India to be the fourth nation to soft-land a guided craft on the moon, and it lends credence to talk that space cooperation among BRICs members will focus on developing a base on the south pole of the moon. The “southern” shift in shared moon dreams and shared expertise is a step closer to reality, as South Africa announced its desire to cooperate with China in space. China has long stated it is open to international cooperation in space, though it’s not clear if that could or should include the United States—still the undisputed leader in space exploration—because China is banned from U.S. space efforts by the force of law, an ill-conceived law known as Public Law 112–10, Sec. 1340 or the “Wolf Amendment” which states:
“None of the funds made available by this division may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.”
So, the U.S. is not likely to be joining China in its bold plans to explore, analyze and perhaps even set up a provisional moon base near the lunar south pole any time soon.
At the same time, Russia, which has long been a natural choice as a partner in matters pertaining to space because of its association with the exemplary achievements of the Soviet Union in early space exploration, is less of an attractive option than ever before. Russia’s otherwise commendable cooperation with the U.S. and other nations on the International Space Station is coming to a close and future programs with the EU have been canceled or dropped from consideration due to Moscow’s belligerence in Ukraine.
But even leaving politics aside, which is admittedly difficult given the disruption, calamity and ill will caused by Russia’s ongoing invasion and assault of its neighbor, Russia is not what it used to be.
Sputnik, the first satellite in space, Yuri Gargarin, the first man in orbit, and Luna-9, the first soft landing of an unmanned craft on the moon are among Moscow’s greatest achievements, but the Russia space program was eclipsed in 1969 when the U.S. “won” the space race and landed the first two men on the moon. Russia’s formidable space program, despite some great technology in its rocketry and the versatility of its Soyuz craft, has been in decline ever since.
In the same week that India’s Chandrayaan-3 successfully landed on the moon, Russia lost a craft attempting to do just that.
“Russia’s Lunar Lander Crashes Into the Moon,”trumpeted the New York Times, quoting Russian authorities who conceded that the spacecraft “ceased its existence as a result of a collision with the lunar surface.”
“Luna-25 crash-lands Russia-China space ambitions” is another one of theheadlines that greeted Russia’s latest debacle in space, and it correctly links Russia’s failure with China’s need to look elsewhere for partners.
As reported by the Asia Times, Wang Wenbin, speaking for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reacted to the news of Luna-25’s demise saying, “China’s International Lunar Research Station is open to all international partners who are interested in it…China will carry out broad cooperation in the International Lunar Research Station, bolster scientific research and exchanges.”
Hu Xijin of the Global Times chimed in, noting that Russia’s economy was weak, and adding that Luna-25’s crash should serve as a reminder to China to keep strengthening its economy, develop high technology and boost its defense power.
China’s planned lunar missions in the Chang’E program are advanced enough to have the U.S. worried, especially since NASA’s Artemis project is running over budget and behind schedule.
With the U.S. out of the picture for political reasons and Russia crippled by a war and a weak economy, China and India, respectively the third and fourth nations to land on the moon, are both rivals and potential partners.
It’s too soon to say if India and China will cooperate in outer space, because unresolved border issues and competing nationalisms pose barriers to cooperation, but if China and India do succeed in smoothing things out on the home front, then the South Pole of the moon is likely where big things will happen, happily echoing Modi’s confused excitement about China and the moon.