Forty years ago this month, mankind leapt into the future when the US’ Apollo 11 triumphantly touched down on the moon. The lunar landing was a midpoint—and the zenith—of the US and the Soviet Union’s space race, in the thick of the Cold War.
Indeed, the launch was a giant leap forward for mankind. For a generation, the Apollo mission was the catalyst for a cultural flourishing, which embraced humanity’s apparent future in space. Between film and TV franchises—The Star Wars and Star Trek series—and the proliferation of popular science fiction by Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, the impact of the launch on our imagination cannot be underestimated.
The greater significance of the space race, and the Apollo launch, however, is its reflection of the geopolitical realities of the Cold War.
Government-sponsored research is inherently about nation building or furthering the interests of the state. In the case of US space research, the Apollo programme fitted neatly into the paradigm of countering Soviet influence during the heat of the Cold War. Policymakers, scientists and the general public literally believed the wars of the future would take place in space; and we have seen modern military technologies benefit from Cold War space research—from spy satellites to missile-launching technologies.
Many have tried to characterize the major geopolitical realities in a post-Cold War era: a Clash of Civilizations, a Post-American World, the Green Century or even the expansion of “Islamofascism”. Regardless of how precisely these categories can characterize our world, it is clear that no geopolitical paradigm is as singularly prominent as the Cold War was.
It is within this context that India pursues space technology and other government-sponsored research and development. This April, India launched the RISAT-2, a spy satellite built in collaboration with Israel. Whether historians will reflect on the present as the G-2, G-8, Bric or Indochinesia remains to be seen. But we must understand what space—or technology research, more broadly—means for India in a world of increasingly fractured power sources.
What lessons can India learn from the Apollo launch and the Cold War space race? Tell us at email@example.com