In today’s Finshots, we explore India’s latest attempt at a moon landing and the brewing lunar race. And yes, we are only talking about this because we are also going to look at the economics of this endeavour as well.

The Story

In 2019, we sent a mission to the moon. We failed to land and we crashed due to a software glitch that affected the brakes. India was disappointed. But, we did get a consolation prize — we’d also sent something to orbit the moon and collect pictures. That part worked out pretty well.

Now 4 years later, we’re trying again. On 14th July, we launched Chandrayaan-3. We’re going back to the moon again. And this time, we have a single-minded goal. To stick the landing.

If we succeed, well, that’s a huge, huge deal.

For starters, there’s the bragging rights.

We’ve already shown our capabilities to launch enormously successful space programmes on a budget. Including commercial ventures — In the past 5 years, we’ve launched 177 satellites for 19 countries and ISRO has earned over ₹1000 crores by doing this.

But putting wheels on the moon is something else. Because only 3 countries have managed a successful moon landing this far — Russia (or the erstwhile Soviet Union), the US, and China. And well, we could be the fourth. And not to forget that the landing is slated for the south pole of the moon. Not on its equator which is the popular landing spot. So it's even harder. We’re being ambitious and want to do something that no one has ever done before.

Maybe ISRO could see even more commercial success if this works out. More countries and companies will be willing to pay for its expertise.

There’s another softer aspect too. A tinge of emotion, if you will. As we wrote in 2019, during the previous launch:

It [space exploration] has the potential to change the cultural outlook of the entire population. It has the potential to inspire generations of kids. To take up science, engineering, math and to advance research in India instead of just seeking a plush job in the US. It has the potential to take the son of a poor farmer from Tamil Nadu and thrust him to the top of one of the greatest space research organisations on the face of this planet.

And India’s space efforts are already spurring new dreams. We have more than 100 space startups in the country now. This number was just 21 in 2020. And investors such as Google and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund are already backing some of them.

So yeah, you can see why everyone’s excited about Chandrayaan-3. It’s just the beginning.

But here’s the thing, India is not the only country with lunar ambitions. We have the usual suspects - the USA, China, and Russia who have doubled down on their moon efforts too. But we also have, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates who’ve got their eyes on moon missions.

Why, though?

Well, there’s obviously the research and scientific discovery. Everyone wants to be the first to find something new. You see, the moon is kind of like a time capsule. It doesn’t really have a magnetic field. So it doesn’t repel high-energy particles emitted by the sun. And these end up getting buried under the lunar surface. Basically, it contains ‘data’ of over 4.5 billion years. And it could hold the keys to understanding much more about how our solar system was formed. Which scientist wouldn’t love that, eh? And if you can put radio telescopes on the far side of the moon — the part facing away from the earth — it could be a clear window into deep space. There would be no radio or daylight interference from Earth. Or at least that’s the hope. And who knows what secrets of the universe we could unlock.

But the larger picture here in the lunar race could also be geopolitics.

See, for years we’ve had the International Space Station as a shining example of international collaboration. In fact, the US and Russia partnered in 1998 to make it a reality. And soon, Canada, Japan, and 11 other European nations also joined in.

But of late, the collaboration has broken down. Russia used it as a bargaining chip to try and get the US to turn a blind eye to its annexation of Crimea a few years ago. The invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions made relations even colder. And now it’s working to build its own space station. Meanwhile, China isn’t even allowed on the space station. None of its astronauts have been aboard. And because it has its own ambitions, it has quietly built its own station in space.

And there’s some sort of collaboration between the two as well.

If you think about it, these stations can be the perfect gateway to the moon. We don’t mean that in terms of the distance — the stations are typically only 400 km from Earth while the moon is nearly 400,000 km from Earth. So it’s not a hop, skip, and jump away.

But these space stations are what help countries gather crucial data about what it means to ‘live’ in space. Or for that matter, to live anywhere else but earth. It’s how we understand what gravity differentials can do to human bodies. And if countries eventually attempt to set up long-term bases on the moon, this sort of information could be vital.

Wait…long-term moon bases?

Well, we’re not talking about colonizing the moon just yet. But rather these bases could be used for exploiting the moon’s resources. You see, something called Helium-3 is embedded in the lunar soil. It’s an element that can be used in nuclear fusion. It’s the holy grail of energy production. It’s clean. And it doesn’t produce excessive nuclear waste. And it gives us the fuel we want. Apparently, there could be enough on the moon that could power our energy needs for the next 250 years!

Oh, and it’s estimated to be worth trillions of dollars. So that’s a nice incentive for whoever gets there.

Sure, the actual technology and getting things in places could take decades or maybe even centuries. But that won’t stop countries from thinking about how it can be mined. Rumour has it that India has such thoughts too.

Sure, as Axios points out, planting a flag on the moon and claiming territorial rights is tricky. See, the UN has an Outer Space Treaty. It’s there to ensure that countries can’t simply lay claim to parts of the moon. But it doesn’t actually prevent them from building structures on the surface. As long as it’s not military in nature, they’re good to go.

So it’s really not crazy to imagine that all this is inevitably a fight for the moon’s resources.

And once a long-term base on the moon is established, once it’s squeezed to the last drop for its resources, humankind has to head off to the next frontier — Mars. Who says no to more resources, right?

It’s a space race all right. Maybe India wants a piece of the party too.

Anyway, 4 years ago, India cheered as we launched a mission to the moon. That one ended in tears. Hopefully, this August, when we finally attempt to land, things will be different. And if people do shed tears, we hope it’ll be tears of joy. Fingers crossed.

Until then…

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Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that ISRO had launched 424 satellites for 34 countries. While that is across its lifetime, we've updated the article to reflect the numbers and ISRO's earnings in the past 5 years — from January 2018 to November 2022.

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