Between science and geopolitics: Global media and the new space race

How the media reported on India’s lunar success, from China and Russia to the UK, US, France, Germany, Australia and Pakistan.

WrittenBy:Aban Usmani
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In 1969, when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to land on the Moon, the banner headline on the front page of German paper Bild had said “the Moon is now American”. 

But with Chandrayaan-3’s triumph, the same paper has asked “who owns the Moon now” – even as back home, the front page of The Indian Express has declared that “the Moon is Indian”.

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The headline reads: The Moon is now Ami (a German expression to denote Americans)

While there are no ownership rights on the Moon as per the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 signed by 106 countries, the space race of the Cold War period seems to have been reborn in the 21st century with more nations and entities planning space missions. 

A space race with several countries forming their own space agencies, and the emergence of several groups and blocs to cooperate and compete with each other – most prominently the US-led Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian lunar agreement. No Artemis country has tried to join the Russia and China bloc, which in turn has shied away from joining the Artemis Accords. 

Given this backdrop, geopolitical underpinnings have increasingly seeped into global media coverage surrounding spacefaring missions. And a few glimpses could be found in the coverage preceding and hailing India’s successful Moon landing. 

Western media and China

While Western media organisations hailed Chandrayaan-3’s historic triumph, there were comments on Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations’ concerns around China’s space ambitions, as well as India’s military space capabilities and its competition with China, which has already landed on the moon. There were also questions about how Russia’s “closest modern space partner – China – might react to Luna 25’s failure”.

Meanwhile, in China, the South China Morning Post seemed to be the only prominent media outlet to carry a detailed report on the landing, based on inputs from news agencies Reuters and AFP. Leading news agency Xinhua had a 91-word report while the Global Times, which had covered the launch in July in a single tweet and carried brief reports subsequently, did not report on the landing at all. The People’s Daily, which runs the Global Times, also reported on the landing with two tweets.

This is slightly in contrast to the coverage surrounding Russia’s Moon mission, and the Luna-25 crash. An opinion piece in Global Times following the Russian crash had noted that “the West should not underestimate Russia just because its lunar program has failed”. 

Meanwhile, tabloids tried to do what they do best. Consider this headline by Britain’s most popular tabloid Daily Mail: “NASA shows sportsmanship by congratulating India on beating the US to the moon's South Pole - BUT Russia and China stay silent after the Chandrayaan-3 craft makes history”.

But Russian outlets offered a glaring contradiction to that claim.

Prominent paper Moscow Times carried a report headlined “Putin congratulates India on Moon landing after own probe crashed”.  It quoted a Kremlin website statement to state that Russian space agency Roscosmos has congratulated “Indian colleagues on the successful landing of the Chandrayaan-3”.

The first space race decades had offered dollops of such reportage on a different scale. American and Russian citizens were given headlines that reiterated a technological and military threat, a political challenge, and a national spirit of determination. But was it the same during the Russian and Indian probes?

India the ‘true first’, not Russia

Headlined “The second shall be first”, an article in The Economist last week noted: “If it succeeds, India will become just the fourth country, after America, the Soviet Union and China, to have landed on the Moon. If Russia makes it down, it will be simply repeating achievements its antecedent superpower treated as routine half a century ago. The second landing, if it is the second, will be the true first.”

While the piece said there is scientific curiosity to understand the presence of water ice below the Moon’s surface or on its craters, it also noted that proponents of lunar settlement, and space industrialisation, see this ice as a source of oxygen, water and rocket propellant. It noted that an American mission, due to launch in November, is aiming to land on the edge of a crater called Malapert, “which is much closer to the pole than the Indian and Russian landing sites and contains some of the enigmatic permanently shadowed regions”.

Meanwhile, a New York Times interactive report, headlined “Racing to land, or crash, on the Moon”, recollected all the lunar mission crashes over the last few decades, including Russia’s Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-2. “Seven space programs and one private company have made hard landings on the moon: the Soviet Union, United States, Japan, European Space Agency, India, China, Israel and Ispace,” it said, adding that several companies are also competing to achieve the first private lunar landing.

NYT also ran a live blog, headlined “In latest Moon race, India lands first in southern polar region”, including updates from near the mission centre in Andhra Pradesh’s Sriharikota.

“S Somanath, the director of the Indian Space Research Organisation, had fun deflecting one reporter’s question about the project’s frugal cost. Somanath laughed and said, ‘I won’t disclose such secrets. We don’t want everyone else to become so cost-effective!’ The Chandrayaan-2 was reported to have cost about $46 million, and the Chandrayaan-3 is supposed to have been in a similar range,” read one of the updates. 

A report in The Washington Post pointed out that Chandrayaan-3 was among several missions destined for the lunar surface. “Japan is scheduled to launch a small spacecraft to the moon later this week to test its ability to land precisely, a capability that would benefit future missions. And later this year, two private American companies, working under contract with NASA, are also scheduled to fly robotic spacecraft to the lunar surface as part of the space agency’s Artemis program. Ultimately, NASA intends to return humans to the moon for the first time since the last of the Apollo missions in 1972.”

It also noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has sought to bolster the country’s space agency as a symbol of the country’s stature on the global stage”. “Its space program is being used as a way to boost its economy and growing tech sector, analysts say. It has also sought to keep up with China, which has big ambitions in space and has already landed on the moon. India has also flexed its military space capabilities, in 2019, hitting a satellite with a missile, demonstrating its ability to target adversaries’ space assets.”

Another article, published by the organisation last week, had noted that “the goal is not so much proving superiority of one political system over another but a race to a physical location, the south pole of the moon, where water in the form of ice lies in permanently shadowed craters”.

“Another driving factor is that both the Trump and Biden administrations have said the United States is in a space race with China, and are particularly concerned about its lunar ambitions. In an interview with The Post last year, Pam Melroy, the deputy NASA administrator, said she was concerned about how China might behave on the moon, particularly when extracting resources, such as water ice,” it said, pointing to the renewed American interest in the lunar surface.

‘Chandrayaan-3 took much longer’

Meanwhile, the Guardian noted that it took Chandrayaan-3 “much longer to reach the moon than the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, which arrived in a matter of days”. “The mission launched nearly six weeks ago in front of thousands of cheering spectators, taking much longer to reach the moon than the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, which arrived in a matter of days. India is using rockets much less powerful than the US did back then. Instead, the probe orbited Earth several times to gain speed before embarking on its month-long lunar trajectory.”

In a report headlined “India lands spacecraft near south pole of Moon in historic first”, the paper noted that the successful landing marks India’s “emergence as a space power as the government looks to spur investment in private space launches and related satellite-based businesses”. “As well as making history by becoming the first country to touch down near the south pole region, India has also joined the US, the former Soviet Union and China in achieving a moon landing.”

A BBC report, meanwhile, quoted an official to state that the rover is “carrying an Indian flag and its wheels also have ISRO’s logo and emblem embossed on them so that they leave imprints on the lunar soil during the Moon walk”.

“It comes 15 years after Chandrayaan-1, the country's first Moon mission in 2008, which discovered the presence of water molecules on the parched lunar surface and established that the Moon has an atmosphere during daytime. And despite failing the soft landing, Chandrayaan-2 was not a complete write-off - its orbiter continues to circle the Moon even today and will help the Vikram lander send images and data to Earth for analysis.”

BBC also published its South Asian correspondent’s reaction to the “historic Moon landing” – she was at the space centre in Bengaluru.

Prominent in English, buried in French

Leading French outlet Le Monde featured the news as the lead on its home page in English, but it was placed much down below in the French edition of the portal. “India becomes first nation to land a spacecraft near the Moon’s south pole,” read the headline to the report, which included inputs from Le Monde, AP and AFP.

“After a failed attempt nearly four years ago, India made history by becoming the first country to touch down near the little-explored south pole region and joined the United States, the Soviet Union and China in achieving a moon landing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi smiled broadly and waved an Indian flag on a live broadcast to announce the mission's success as a triumph that extended beyond his country's borders.”

A CNN article had earlier noted that “questions are swirling around how Russia’s closest modern space partner – China – might react to Luna 25’s failure.

“The two countries had announced they would work together to establish the International Lunar Research Station, a moon base to rival plans by the US and its allies to create a permanent lunar outpost under NASA’s Artemis program.” It quoted the Washington office director for Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the exploration of outer space, who said that China, which is so far the only country to soft-land spacecraft on the moon in the 21st century, has already been downplaying Russia’s role in the program.

Leading Australian broadcaster ABC pointed out that the mission is “also a win for Mr Modi’s government which is showing off India as a leader in technology and an assertive global superpower.” “Critics of the mission have questioned its importance while hundreds of millions of Indians are still battling rough living conditions.”

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the Chandrayaan-3 landing was covered by nearly all prominent news organisations through reports by global news agencies. 

Former Pakistani PM Imran Khan’s party colleague Fawad Chaudhary, who recently became a butt of jokes for his remarks questioning the need to explore the Moon, did a U-turn beginning Tuesday. Congratulating India for the mission, he urged Pakistani media to telecast live what he said was a “historic moment for humankind”.

But it seems that was Chaudhary asking for the Moon.

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