Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) & NASA Collaborate in a Galaxy Far, Far Away



Deep space cooperation between India and the United States has not always been where it is today. Back in the 1970s the bilateral relationship started to go amiss when India’s first nuclear test successfully detonated in the desert. American intel and politicians were hardly amused, nor were they pleased when India managed to conduct yet another nuclear test in the desert underground in 1998 (EDITOR’S NOTE: I was interning at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC when this happened) infamously without CIA satellites finding out until it was too late.

With India developing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, US-India technology cooperation had suffered greatly. Then, India launched its first Space Launch Vehicle (SLV-3) to be used as a ballistic missile, which further dampened Americans’ cooperative spirit with India. 

In the 1980s, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) prohibited the transfer of dual technologies targeting India with a battery of sanctions and restrictions. All of these events and more led to cooperation with the US and India being severely damaged.

Cooperation Between the US and India

However, US-India space cooperation has come a long way since the 1970s. Since then they have shown their cooperation through the creation of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), Next Steps in Strategic Partnerships, NASA and ISRO Mars Spacecrafts, and Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System. 

ISRO and NASA Memorandums of Understanding 

In 2006, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and United States National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which allowed NASA scientific instruments to be part of the Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission under the aegis of the US Administration led by George W. Bush. The satellite orbited the moon to map the celestial body for chemical and mineralogical characteristics. One of the NASA instruments on the satellite mapped approximately 90 percent of the surface of the moon over 9 months of operation. The Chandrayaan-1 mission produced data that led scientists to detect water on the moon for the first time. 

In 2016, another MOU was formed between ISRO and the United States Geographical Survey (USGS) to allow for the sharing of Earth’s observational data. This was formally approved by the Indian government and allows for the exchange of data from the US satellite to and from India’s satellite. 

Next Steps in Strategic Partnership

The Bush Administration continued to push for improved strategic ties starting with the 2004 launch of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnerships (NSSP) between the US and India. The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership is a diplomatic initiative between the US and India on cooperation in strategic areas such as civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programs, and high technology trade. It also discussed cooperation in missile defense. The partnership was created in hopes of deepening the ties of commerce and friendship between both nations and increasing stability in Asia. 

NASA and ISRO Mars Spacecrafts

In 2014, both India and the United States had spacecraft in Mars orbit. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft (MAVEN) and ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) both made it into Mars orbit and explored Mars’ outer atmosphere. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provided navigation and communication support to MOM. This enhanced US-India space relations strongly. After that, both countries established a Mars Working Group to dive deeper into Mars exploration. The Mars Working Group works to identify and implement goals that NASA and ISRO share for Mars exploration- a technically advanced and complex partnership in outers space not shared by any other pair of countries in the world. 

Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System

Additionally, India and the US have started cooperating in the area of Satellite Navigation (SatNav). The US Congress designates the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) or NavIC as an allied system. This was done in an effort to establish a multi-global SatNav system. Also, companies in the American private sector have made agreements with ISRO to support NaVIC’s geolocation capabilities that will enable better mobile services and Internet performance. 

A Bump In The Road To Cooperation 

All of this progress in cooperation between the US and India has not been without a few bumps in the road. In 2019, the ISRO conducted anti-satellite tests that shook the world’s defense industry. This swiftly caused NASA to suspend cooperation between the US and India temporarily because NASA felt as though anti-satellite testing created too much orbital debris in outer space, which makes human spaceflight more difficult. NASA also concluded that anti-satellite testing would increase the risk to the International Space Station from small debris by 44 percent. Cooperation was however reinstated less than a week after the incident after a flurry of back-channel and open diplomatic contact. 

Trump’s India Visit 

Recently, President Trump visited India partly in an effort to further enhance space cooperation between India and the US. Both countries have similar long-term goals for the moon landing and robotic exploration missions to Mars. Further, both countries have made changes to their military space forces. 

Both NASA and ISRO plan to launch a new satellite called NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite. This satellite will be able to monitor for ecosystem disturbances such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, landslides, glacial changes, and soil moisture. This mission is an exclusive partnership between NASA and ISRO and marks another stride towards greater space cooperation between the two nations.

Final Thoughts

India and the United States have been working to cooperate in space exploration for many years now. They have overcome challenges to get to the level of cooperation they see today. What started as a rocky partnership has now formed into a much more solid and strategic partnership. A partnership where both sides are working hard together to reach a common goal. Just like with anything, there will be some hiccups causing each side to feel a little discontent with the other. However, both India and the US have shown that through working together they can accomplish more than on their own. 

“Bringing US-India Space Cooperation to the Edge of the Universe” Special Address by US ambassador to India Richard Verma at the ORF Kalpana Chawl. US Embassy & Consulates in India.

Author Bio: Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them. 


India’s NaVIC GNSS Capability Declared an Allied System by US Congress. Spacewatch Asia Pacific. 

Memorandum of Understanding between the United States of America and India. Treaties and Other International Acts Series 06-509.1. 

NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar. Jet propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology.

NASA resumes cooperation with ISRO after ASAT test. Space News.

Space India 2.0. Observer Research Foundation. 

Trump’s India Visit Should Enhance US-India Space Cooperation. The Diplomat. 

United States- India Joint Statement on Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. U.S. Department of State.  

US-India space cooperation: Moving away from the burden of the past. Observer Research Foundation. 

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