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US 'red tape' dogged India Moon mission

The recent discovery of water on the Moon by India's inaugural lunar mission almost never happened because of a twin helping of good old-fashioned red tape and lingering Cold War suspicions, reports science writer Pallava Bagla.

Chandrayaan 1 (ISRO)
A spanner was thrown in the works by American bureaucracy imposing conditions

Hidden behind the euphoria of the find is a less publicised tale of complex back room dealings between Indian and American space science teams.

Back in 2004, scientists from the two countries were eager to collaborate, but the Bureau of Export Control in the US did not share this enthusiasm. In fact it was seen by some on the Indian side as being singularly obstinate.

It is accused of not being willing to clear the paperwork that would allow sophisticated American-made instruments to be airlifted to Bangalore for the mission.

It is also accused of using "all the tricks in it is pockets" to scuttle the operation before then US President George W Bush reportedly intervened to make sure this did not happen.

It is important to remember that the Moon mission was planned and executed well before the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was finalised in 2008, a historic moment prior to which there was much suspicion between the two countries.

Back in 2005, in initiating its collaboration with the Americans, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) decided to forget the two sides' rocky past. India had been denied access to technology under US sanctions imposed after nuclear tests in 1974.

Lunar surface
The quantity of water found was small, but could become a useful resource

Even today, many Indian space laboratories continue to languish on a dreaded US blacklist.

The $100m Chandrayaan project was an Indian mission with international partners. On board India used a guest instrument from Nasa, a mineral mapper.

This is a laser printer-sized, 9kg device that beamed images of the wet lunar landscape. Another Nasa instrument, a small radar called a MiniSAR, was also flown aboard the Indian mission.

Isro decided not to charge its guests for this 400,000km (248,548-mile) journey. The international instruments were all flown free to the Moon.

The only expectation Delhi had in return for this agreement was that the scientific data collected from the guest instruments would be shared with Indian researchers.

It is this visionary arrangement that brought India its water-on-the-Moon moment.

'Not acceptable'

Late in 2005, just a little before Mr Bush made his historic visit to India, space scientists from the two countries were unquestionably eager to collaborate.

Even today it still seems that the Americans only want to co-operate with India on certain science-based satellite missions

But a spanner was thrown in the works by American conditions in the technology co-operation agreement that were not acceptable to India.

Delhi argued that it seemed as if the US was imposing tough conditions on India while at the same time accepting a free gift from it to fly US payloads to the Moon.

Talking in 2006, Isro chairman Madhavan Nair argued that the US move could "compromise" India's interests.

Even as President Bush flew to India, officials from both countries were working hard to hammer out acceptable texts for highly complex bilateral umbrella agreements - called the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) and the Technology Assistance Agreement (TAA) for space co-operation.

Experts say that the end product of these talks was the "Chandrayaan-1" agreement, which is how the Bureau of Export Control finally gave Nasa permission to ship the instruments.

It is not much publicised outside Isro, but the fact is that India had to keep the designs of Chandrayaan open for a long time just to accommodate huge delays by American bureaucracy.

The Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3, one of the devices behind the water on the Moon findings - was literally the last of the 11 instruments to be accommodated on board the Chandrayaan mission.

'Hurdles'

This is not the first time that a high-profile Indo-US space dream has nearly died early because of what some in India see as the unbending attitude of US bureaucracy.

In 2006, India's dreams of launching missions in conjunction with America's Boeing Corporation were shattered soon after the deal was announced.

Buss Aldrin (Nasa)
India wants full access to US lunar technology

It was aborted not because Isro and Boeing were unwilling to become partners, but because of huge delays in getting export clearance from the US state department.

Indian experts argued that the agreement failed to materialise because of "huge delays and immense hurdles" thrown in their way by American bureaucracy in Washington.

The Americans, it was thought, were fearful that the deal could result in a diversion of dual-use technologies for military purposes.

"The [paperwork] took so long that the whole project itself was over by the time clearances came through," Dr Nair said.

Boeing and Isro finally called it quits on their tentative joint venture in late 2006.

Even today it still seems that the Americans want to co-operate with India only on certain science-based satellite missions.

They seem to be happy that co-operation takes place in not-for-profit science related projects, but profit-making commercial ventures in the lucrative space market are still a no-no.

Indian experts hope that the recent success of the Moon water mission may alter this approach by Washington and lead to a robust Indo-American planetary exploration partnership that is free from the shackles of ever-suspicious civil servants.

Pallava Bagla is science editor for New Delhi Television (NDTV) and co-author of Destination Moon: India's Quest for the Moon, Mars and Beyond. The views expressed here are personal and he can be reached at pallava.bagla@gmail.com.



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