The shadow of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft is visible on the lunar surface.
The list is bleak on reading: stuck, failed, missing, failed, failed, stuck, failed, smashed, missed, smashed, smashed.
This was the fate of the first 11 attempts by the Soviet Union before successfully landing a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, according to the British Daily Mail. Database compiled by Jonathan McDowellan astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which catalogs space missions.
And even in modern times — with nine attempted moon landings since 2013 — the track record is still shaky. Prior to India’s success on Wednesday, three out of every eight missions in the past decade had been made by China, India, Israel, Japan and Russia.
The McDowell database shows the massive challenge faced by the 50 attempts to land on the Moon, with a simple scoreboard that says: Earthlings 23, Gravity 27.
India launched its first anti-gravity W rocket on Wednesday, after the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-3 landed safely on the lunar surface. This achievement makes India the fourth country to successfully land on the moon, and the first to land near the south pole of the moon.
School students watch the live broadcast of Chandrayaan-3’s moon landing at Sector 20 Brahmananda Public School on August 23, 2023 in Noida, India.
Sunil Ghosh | Hindustan Times | Getty Images
“They should be very proud of this achievement,” Jim Bridenstine, who led NASA as administrator from 2018 to 2021, told CNBC.
Sign up here to receive the weekly issues of CNBC’s newsletter about investing in space.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of India’s moon landing is the scant budget – by government standards – with which the country has achieved the task. In 2020, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) estimated that the Chandrayaan-3 mission would cost around $75 million. The launch was delayed by two years, which likely increased the overall cost of the mission. ISRO did not respond to CNBC’s request for an updated cost figure.
But that is competing with cheaper moon landings being developed in the US, and NASA has in recent years turned to having companies compete for fixed-price contracts to build lunar landers, under a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services. The CLPS program has a maximum budget of $2.6 billion over 10 years, with 14 companies vying for mission contracts typically worth more than $70 million each.
In general, the annual budget of NASA exceeds that of its Indian counterpart. In 2023, the US agency received $25.4 billion in funding, compared to the organization’s budget of about $1.6 billion. Bridenstine stressed that NASA’s much larger budget is a reflection of the “different level of capability” offered by the US agency, with everything from the continued presence of astronauts in orbit to missions targeting planets, asteroids and more.
As a percentage of GDP, the US spends the most on space – although it still only accounts for 0.28% of GDP. This far exceeds India’s GDP of 0.04%, according to a July report on the global space economy by the Space Corporation.
“India’s ambitions must be willing to invest more and develop capabilities that are on par with the United States,” Bridenstine said.
India is increasingly seen as a major player in space in geopolitical terms. And while China has succeeded Russia as the most important competitor to US influence and capabilities in space, India may occupy the third place in the hierarchy of great powers in space.
“I hope they use (Chandrayan-3) as an opportunity to build on the success,” Bridenstine said. “They have a great economy and will be able to invest money in space exploration.”
“Costs will continue to come down, which is a very positive development for everyone interested in space exploration,” he added. “And the costs of getting to the moon will come down, especially as we have more and more companies doing more and more missions.”