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PHILIP REEVES: I'm Philip Reeves in India, a country that also has big ambitions to harness space to meet its growing needs.

Unidentified Man #1: Ten satellites, one spectacular launch.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Indians take much patriotic pride in their space program.

Unidentified Man #2: No one, not the Russians, not the Europeans, not even almighty NASA ever put that many birds into flight in one tremendous eve.

REEVES: That rocket launched last year, carrying a batch of new satellites. When India embarked on its first moon mission six months later, there was even more excitement.

(Soundbite of rocket engine)

(Soundbite of cheers)

REEVES: As the Chandrayaan-1 lifted off, spectators watched in awe and posted their reactions on YouTube. Commentators declared the 21st century's great space race had begun between Asia's rising powers, India and China.

(Soundbite of cheers)

REEVES: Much has changed since India's space program made a modest start back in the 1960s. Pallava Bagla, co-author of a book on India's moon mission, says the program's founders weren't interested in going to the moon.

Mr. PALLAVA BAGLA (Author): The government decided that it will use space as a means of delivering high technology to alleviate poverty. That was the fundamental way in which the space program started.

REEVES: It created satellites that could search for water and minerals, predict the weather and monitor pollution. Dipankar Banerjee of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi says space technology now plays a huge role in Indian life.

Mr. DIPANKAR BANERJEE (Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi): The standard of television channels that are now broadcasting news all over the country, providing communications now extensively, predicting the monsoons is absolutely vital to (unintelligible), analyzing the forest cover.

REEVES: This year, India allocated just over a billion dollars to its space program. That's about a seventeenth of NASA's budget. Some people say that money would be better spent helping hundreds of millions of Indians who still live in profound poverty. But officials argue that every one rupee spent on the space program indirectly generates two in return.

As for the moon mission, India says it costs less than $90 million, a sum that Ajey Lele of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi says is tiny by today's standards.

Mr. AJEY LELE (Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi): You know(ph) what the Indian businessmen call (unintelligible) money, who gifted his wife an acre which costs more than India's moon mission. So I think India has to live get used to a stage where they can really afford it.

Unidentified Man #2: Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Zero. Just one - yes, (unintelligible) has lifted off.

(Soundbite of rocket engine)

REEVES: When in October the Indian Space Research Organization dispatched the unmanned Chandrayaan-1 to orbit the moon, everything went smoothly. Carrying payloads from NASA and Europe, it set off to map the lunar surface in unprecedented detail and search for minerals. But it's run into technical trouble, so the two-year mission may have to be curtailed. That's unlikely to dent the ambitions of India's space scientists. They're working on Chandrayaan-2. That'll place a buggy on the moon. They also want to send missions to study the sun and Mars. There's talk of eventually sending an Indian astronaut to the moon, though that's controversial.

Kiran Karnik worked with India's space research program for 20 years. He thinks gathering data from the moon is useful, but landing a human on it is not.

Dr. KIRAN KARNIK (India's Space Research Program): I think it's pointless. Let's stay ahead in what counts for India, which is applications that have meaning for the development of this country.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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