May 16, 2006 -- Last week's announcement that NASA would be contributing resources to an Indian spaceflight to orbit the moon may have surprised many who remember the space race as a matter of national pride. To the chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, however, the cooperation makes perfect sense.
"I think this is the evolution of well-informed partnerships," Jim Garvin said. "We can't all do everything, and the moon is an important gateway to deep space."
The plan is to put two NASA scientific devices onto an unmanned Indian mission to the moon. According to Garvin, it complements perfectly NASA's own plans to revisit Earth's closest neighbor.
"The Indian mission will help us understand our data. Our mission will help them understand their data," he said.
The announcement formalized a plan that had been openly considered since Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington last summer. It comes at a time of increased international cooperation in space exploration, which in decades past was a matter of closely guarded secrets.
Garvin chalks up that change to the realization among formerly competitive space programs that there is enough for everyone to study.
"There are oodles of great questions left that are still conundrums," he said.
The Science Involved
Garvin describes India's first trip to the moon as a "great science mission."
The two American devices will travel the nearly 240,000 miles to the moon aboard Chandrayaan-1, India's first lunar mission. The data they will bring back fulfill practical NASA goals, and will be a boon to raw science -- the gathering of information for information's sake.
One device, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper -- which NASA internally calls "M Cubed" -- will provide insight into what minerals make up the rocks on the moon, and how those rocks were formed.
"From this we will be able to tell a lot about the geology of the moon, and the Earth as well, because the moon was once part of the Earth," said Tom Glavich, the project manager for the Mapper, who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.
"Right now the mineralogy of the moon is only slightly known," he said.
That information will help NASA formulate plans to return men to the moon -- a goal laid out by President Bush in 2004 -- by informing what minerals might be utilized by human explorers on the surface.
The second device is a new type of radar -- Garvin describes it as a smaller and more nimble radar -- that will map the polar regions of the moon, which have been in the dark for billions of years. The information gathered will help scientists determine whether there is water on the moon. The testing of the new radar equipment will contribute to better safety systems, such as air traffic control radar, here at home.
Science and Foreign Policy
To talk to NASA officials about the internationalization of space exploration, it sounds like the announcement of a corporate merger.
Other countries "see a synergy and the potential opportunity to collaborate with NASA, and you're seeing a lot of interest there," said Dean Acosta, a NASA spokesman. "Since there's a potential synergy there, there's an opportunity for their very smart minds that are working on their projects and our very smart minds to share ideas."
During the Cold War, the space race exemplified the tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States as much as any other measure. Now Russia and the European Union nations all work together with the United States on space exploration. There will be several European devices on Chandrayaan-1.
"You are seeing other countries that also have similar ideas that they want to accomplish coming to the table," said Acosta. "Science is now overlapping foreign policy."
Garvin says the moon is the perfect place for such international cooperation because it's right in Earth's backyard and is a launching pad for deeper space exploration. He expects cooperation to continue, and many nations to venture to our lunar neighbor.
"The armada is about to hit the moon," he said.