Regrettably, a segment of the British media believes that developing countries should focus all of their resources and efforts on poverty alleviation rather than space exploration. In essence, such a stance could be seen as ethnocentric. It almost has a patronizing undertone: “Space is a privilege of the affluent; attain our level of progress first, then you may dream of the stars.” However, viewing development as a linear, one-size-fits-all trip is not only unnecessarily simplistic but also contemptuous of the diverse growth paths that each country follows.
Take India as an example. Its accomplishments in space science are unquestionably commendable. The country’s recent achievement of landing a lunar probe on the moon’s south pole demonstrates its prowess. Let us pause for a moment to assess the financial situation: India’s pioneering moon expedition cost around one-third of the budget for “Avengers: Endgame.” Iron Man and his company may learn a thing or two about saving the world on a shoestring budget! While Hollywood was preoccupied with generating interplanetary drama and CGI explosions, a real-life team of scientists and engineers managed to scream, “To the moon, Alice!”—and actually mean it. Instead of producing another sequel, they created a genuine scientific achievement.
It’s like if India had its special showing of “Budget Avengers: Lunar Edition,” complete with real moon rocks rather than just special effects. Such budgetary resourcefulness and scientific prowess should be rewarded with standing ovations and even a sequel. Instead of shaking their heads at the chutzpah of a developing country striving for the stars, perhaps people should be tipping their caps, because they’ve showed us how to do more with less—and that’s a major accomplishment in anyone’s book.
Aditya L1‘s launch on September 2nd, 2023, will mark yet another milestone in India’s space program. Aditya L1 will be India’s first space-based mission to study the Sun. The spacecraft will be positioned in a halo orbit around the Sun-Earth system’s Lagrange point 1 (L1), which is approximately 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth.
Similarly, India has achieved enormous advances in poverty eradication. According to the UNDP Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, an amazing 415 million people were pulled out of poverty between 2005 and 2021. This accomplishment reveals a clear fact: a country’s commitment to space exploration does not jeopardize its commitment to social welfare.
Economic advancement, technological advancement, and social advancement are not mutually exclusive goals. Imposing such a dualistic attitude on emerging countries, implying that they must choose between the stars and their citizens, is not only unjust but also a profound misinterpretation of their capabilities and aspirations.
However, it is a legitimate argument as to why a developing country should bother investing in a space program, especially when one must prioritize spending. There are five reasons, in my opinion. The first is national security. In today’s technologically advanced world, space programs are critical for emerging countries’ national security. Satellites provide critical services such as communication, surveillance, and defense. Countries such as India are already emphasizing space for security purposes, providing a strategic advantage. Without space capabilities, governments are susceptible to cyberattacks and espionage. In short, space is not optional; it is a security need.
Second, space initiatives have the potential to boost economic development. India once again demonstrates how it is done. Satellite technology is making important services more accessible, whether it’s telemedicine initiatives that connect outlying health centers to urban hospitals or tele-education projects like EDUSAT that promote distance learning. These projects target socioeconomic inequities directly by providing quality healthcare and education to rural and isolated areas. Furthermore, the use of INSAT/GSAT satellites for weather forecasting aids disaster management by allowing for prompt evacuations and preparedness, particularly in cyclone-prone areas.
Financial institutions use Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) for safe, real-time data transfer, allowing them to provide seamless banking services even in remote locations. Even India’s digital payment revolution would not have been possible without a strong satellite network. This multi-sectoral use of satellite technology radically democratizes access to resources and opportunities, supporting inclusive development from the ground up.
Third, Immanuel Kant stated, “Two things awe me the most: the starry sky above and the moral law within.” Children’s scientific temperament is fostered by space programs, which heighten their wonder. Rockets not only excite a nation’s technical dreams, but they also motivate young brains to pursue STEM careers. Each launch represents the limitless potential of human achievement, inspiring the next generation to reach both forth and inward to their own potential.
Fourth, investing in space exploration can drive revenue and attract foreign direct investments by fostering high-tech industries and innovations. This leads to spin-off companies and patents, boosting the economy and positioning the country as a tech leader. Foreign investors, enticed by this technological edge, are likely to invest in various sectors, further increasing FDIs.
Fifth, space exploration allows poor countries to break free from monopolistic suppliers such as China for vital commodities such as rare earth metals. There is a risk of economic neocolonialism if China controls this key supply chain. Investing in space can mitigate this by providing access to unexplored off-world material resources. This not only diversifies supply, but it also stimulates innovation and economic progress. Importantly, space provides a venue for international cooperation, which helps to mitigate neocolonial threats. Investing in space projects might eventually become a requirement for underdeveloped countries.
In a nutshell, if we’re still asking why poor countries should aim for the skies while dealing with earthly problems, consider that they’re not choosing between “Star Wars” and social programs. They’re basically doing the Macarena, balancing a little bit of everything while making it look effortless. The cosmic dance entails more than just rocket launches; it entails rocket-fueling development throughout sectors, from security to social justice. So, give them some breathing room—both literally and metaphorically. Who wouldn’t want to take part in a cosmic Macarena where every move counts?
Bibek Debroy is Chairman, of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India (EAC-PM) & Aditya Sinha is Additional Private Secretary (Policy & Research), EAC-PM.