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India’s successful moon landing highlights Russia’s aerospace downfall

Recently, the Russian Luna 25 and the Indian Chandrayaan-3 arrived at the moon to attempt landings at the lunar south pole, with decidedly different results.

The Luna 25 mission has failed. According to Space News, flight controllers instructed the spacecraft to fire its engines to lower its orbit around the moon in preparation for a landing attempt. It quoted Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, as saying, “An emergency situation occurred on board the automatic station, which did not allow the maneuver to be performed with the specified parameters.” Later, the Russians determined that the deviation from “the specified parameters” caused Luna 25 to crash onto the lunar surface.

The immensity of the humiliation that the loss of the Luna 25 has visited on Russia can hardly be overestimated. Russia has become a pariah state to many thanks to its ongoing war in Ukraine. Its space program largely depends on Western beneficence, particularly the partnership with the International Space Station. Luna 25 would have proved that Russia could still explore space on its own. Instead, it has proven that Russia as a space power is in decline.

India’s Indian Space Research Organization, on the other hand, has successfully landed the Vikram lander on the moon as part of the Chandrayaan-3 mission. While the NASA and European Space Agency deep space tracking networks aided the mission, India’s first lunar landing was a home-grown effort. India has become the fourth nation to successfully land on the moon and the first to land at the ice-rich lunar south pole. India is a space power in the ascent.

What are the lessons to be learned about the two latest attempts to land on the moon?

For Russia, the failure of Luna 25 is a reminder of how much Vladimir Putin has misjudged the way to achieve national greatness in the 21st century. Putin’s Ukraine adventure denied Roscosmos access to foreign cooperation for the Luna 25 mission. Russia could only communicate with the probe when the moon was visible over Russia since it could not use American or European tracking stations according to Ars Technica. The ESA withdrew cooperation with the mission soon after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.

As Ars Technica also reports, Putin allowed corruption to run rampant in Russia’s space effort and starved it of funds. China, which once thought of Russia as a junior partner in its own lunar efforts, must be rethinking that arrangement. In World War I, German General Erich von Ludendorff is said to have described his country’s alliance with the Austrian-Hungarian empire as being “shackled to a corpse.” Xi Jinping must have similar thoughts about Russia.

India, on the other hand, has proven that with effort and ingenuity, it can land on the moon to help uncover its secrets. In living memory, only superpowers were able to explore space and land on other worlds. Chandrayaan-3 has proven that the club of space-faring nations is no longer quite so exclusive.

Chandrayaan-3 also proves that, unlike Russia and, to a certain extent, China, India knows that the way to national greatness is not through hard military power used to dominate and terrorize other countries. The real path to greatness is through technological development, particularly in space exploration. India has earned the respect of the world by landing on the moon.

Also unlike Russia and China, India recognizes the value of space cooperation. India recently signed the Artemis Accords, consisting of rules for nations to operate on the moon and other celestial bodies. No doubt, when the first Artemis missions land on the moon bearing the first human beings to visit since 1972, Indian citizens will be among them.

India’s success yields a valuable lesson to other countries, especially Russia. Russia’s fall from grace as a space power and its replacement by India points the way to a future in which coalitions of nations and private companies such as SpaceX, cooperating in peace, will expand human civilization to the moon, then Mars, then beyond.

China, and whichever nations such as Russia it persuades to join it, will realize, sooner or later, that waging big power competition in space is not sustainable. China’s economic problems are too deep to maintain a competitive space effort. Like India and much of the rest of the world, Beijing will realize that the best path is joining the rest of the world in the peaceful exploration of space.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Artemis Accords India–United States relations lunar landing lunar mission return to the moon Russia–United States relations Space exploration Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping