By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 4, 2009; A12
PANNITHITTU, India -- In this seaside village, the children of farmers and fishermen aspire to become something that their impoverished parents never thought possible: astronauts.
Through community-based programs, India's space agency has been partnering with schools in remote areas such as this one, helping to teach students about space exploration and cutting-edge technology. The agency is also training thousands of young scientists and, in 2012, will open the nation's first astronaut-training center in the southern city of Bangalore.
"I want to be prepared in space sciences so I can go to the moon when India picks its astronauts," said Lakshmi Kannan, 15, pushing her long braids out of her face and clutching her science textbook.
Lakshmi's hopes are not unlike India's ambitions, writ small. For years, the country has focused its efforts in space on practical applications -- using satellites to collect information on natural disasters, for instance. But India is now moving beyond that traditional focus and has planned its first manned space mission in 2015.
The ambitions of the 46-year-old national space program could vastly expand India's international profile in space and catapult it into a space race with China. China, the only country besides the United States and Russia to have launched a manned spacecraft, did so six years ago.
"It's such an exciting time in the history of India's space program," said G. Madhavan Nair, a rocket scientist and the outgoing chairman of the national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). "More and more bright young Indian scientists are calling us for jobs. We will look back on this as a turning point."
The ascendancy of India's space program highlights the country's rising ambitions on the world stage, as it grows economically and asserts itself in matters of diplomacy.
Politicians once dismissed the space program as a waste. Activists for India's legions of poor criticized additional funding for the program, saying it was needless decades after the American crew of Apollo 11 had landed on the moon. Now, however, the program is a source of prestige.
Last year, India reached a milestone, launching 10 satellites into space on a single rocket. Officials are positioning the country to become a leader in the business of launching satellites for others, having found paying clients in countries such as Israel and Italy. They even talk of a mission to Mars.
India's program is smaller in scope than China's and is thought to receive far less funding. It is also designed mostly for civilian purposes, whereas experts have suggested that China is more interested in military applications. (The Communist Party has said its goal is peaceful space exploration.)
"A human space flight with an eventual moon mission is a direct challenge to China's regional leadership," said John M. Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "China is still the leader. India has yet to diminish China's space stature. But India is indeed seeking a higher global profile."
India now has among the world's largest constellations of remote-sensing satellites. They are sophisticated enough to distinguish healthy coconuts from diseased ones in this region's thick palms. They can also zero in on deadly mosquitoes lurking in a patch of jungle.
In September, a NASA device aboard India's first lunar probe detected strong evidence of water on the moon -- a "holy grail for lunar scientists," as Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters in Washington, put it.
The partnership with Americans was particularly gratifying to Indians, given recent bilateral history. After New Delhi conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the United States imposed sanctions denying India access to certain technology in a bid to curb its ability to launch nuclear rockets, said Theresa Hitchens, a space expert who is director of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva.
"Space launchers and ballistic missiles are quite similar from a technical perspective," she said.
Many of the sanctions have been lifted, and India and the United States last year signed a historic civilian nuclear agreement, lifting a 30-year ban on bilateral nuclear trade.
"The scientists at ISRO and NASA have always had deep respect for each other. But it was politics and bureaucracy that stood in the way of great science," said Pallava Bagla, co-author of "Destination Moon: India's Quest for the Moon, Mars and Beyond."
As India's space program barrels ahead, experts fear that NASA is losing ground. The space agency's human spaceflight program is facing budget cuts, as well as basic questions about where to go and how to get there.
After NASA's aging space shuttle retires in 2010, it will be five years before the United States will have another spacecraft that can reach the international space station.
The United States may have to buy a seat to the moon on an Indian spaceship, said Rakesh Sharma, India's first astronaut, who in 1984 was aboard the Soviet Union's Soyuz T-11 space shuttle. "Now that would be something," Sharma said. "Maybe budget cuts could usher in an era of more cooperation rather than competition and distrust."