A government official today unwittingly revealed a fundamental and unpleasant truth about how governments: operate. In an interview today, the head of India’s space agency denied that his country is in a space race with anyone.
Mr. Radhakrishnan, Secretary in the Department of Space and Chairman of Space Commission, said each country — whether it’s India, the US, Russia or China — had their own priorities.
“There is no race with anybody. If you look at anybody, they have their own direction. So, I don’t find a place for race with somebody. But I would say we are always on race with ourselves to excel in areas that we have chalked out for ourselves,” he told PTI here in an interview.
How typical. By denying the reality of the competition that India is part of Mr. Radhakrishnan illustrates for me and everyone once again the basic reason all government efforts eventually fail.
First, his statement demonstrates how governments always try to minimize risk. He is afraid of failure. To admit he is in a competition means he and his agency have to take chances in order to stay ahead. By denying the existence of the competition allows him he avoid it. India will thus accomplish less in the long run.
Second, he’d rather not work that hard, like too many other government workers. No competition, no requirement to stay up late trying to figure out how to beat the other guy. Instead, let’s work carefully and slowly, making sure nothing goes wrong.
Third, if he really believes his statement he tells us that he isn’t being honest with himself. And when you fool yourself, you shoot yourself in the foot. The only way anyone can really achieve anything is to be brutally honest so that you can figure out what you are doing wrong and fix it. Mr. Radhakrishnan will have difficulty doing this, as it is clear he is willing to make believe certain truths don’t exist.
Competition is a natural part of human nature. It is exactly why China has created its own space program. It is why India has been working for more than a decade to develop its own home-grown rockets and spacecraft.
It is why both Russia the U.S. struggled to get to the Moon in the 1960s, and why the U.S. was able to do so so quickly. Each one of these countries wanted to demonstrate that they could do these things faster and better than anyone else.
In the ten short years of the 1960s, when these governments were aggressively but peaceably competing with each other, the first humans got into space. The first humans landed on the Moon. The first human probes were sent to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The first big rockets were built and the first space stations were built.
When the 1960s space race was won, however, the governments of Russia and the United States decided to stop that competition. Instead, they decided to make believe the world was made of rainbows and unicorns and that everyone was all lovey-dovey with each other. They pushed the idea of cooperation.
The result has been a half century of not much achievement. In the fifty years of cooperation that followed, not much new was accomplished. No new rockets were built. No new spaceships were built. The U.S. and Russia stagnated, sending the same vehicles into space to go around and around the Earth, doing the same things, over and over again.
Now a crop of independent new private companies as well as several new countries are aggressively and peaceably competing against each other for business and the honor of achieving something new in space. The result has been the first new rocket engines in decades, the first new rockets in decades, and the first new spaceships in decades. Space exploration has been invigorated in ways that no one has seen since 1969.
India and China are part of this new competition. If either decides to make believe they aren’t they will be left in the dust by those that do. Mr. Radhakrishnan better wake up to this reality.