PTI, Bangalore: India is pushing ahead with its ambitious space programme while casting an envious eye at neighbouring China, which is on the verge of becoming the third nation to put a man into orbit, analysts say.

The two Asian giants have taken their traditional rivalry into space; India, which fought a border war with China in 1962, may be behind in terms of space technology, but is eager to catch up.

Just a few days after China said in January that it would send a human into orbit in the second half of 2003, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly urged his country's scientists to work towards sending a man to the moon.

Last month the Union cabinet approved a proposal by space authorities to send an unmanned mission to the moon by 2008.

Critics have slammed the Indian mission, called Chandrayan-I, which will cost Rs 3.86 billion.

They argue the project is unrealistic, adding the cash-strapped nation should use its funds for social welfare and restrict its space programme to satellite launches.

But the space frontier has touched a nerve here — the country deeply mourned the loss of Indian-born US citizen Kalpana Chawla when she died along with six other astronauts in the Columbia disaster in February.

She was regarded as a hero by many Indians and after her death Vajpayee announced that the country's newest weather satellite would be renamed the Kalpana-1.

But Govind Swarup, a scientist at the National Centre for Radioastronomy, in Pune, said the rivalry with China was not a political decision, but a scientific necessity which could be beneficial for India.

“Though India cannot totally compete with China in space, it can always have fair competition. “Let us look at it this way. If some day water is found on the moon, India will definitely like to be there,” Swarup said.

India has the capability to match the Chinese and the moon mission would yield other technological and military spin-offs, he added.

“Space is a great success story for India. Despite poverty it is a showpiece for young people to dream and emulate. The mission can help develop launch capabilities of higher reliability,” he said.

President A P J Abdul Kalam has also backed the moon project, saying last week it would spark off further planetary explorations by the country's space authorities.

Kalam, a rocket scientist who is known as the father of India's missile programme, also said it would “electrify” the spirit of young scientists.

Sudhir Saxena, analyst at New Delhi's Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, said the focus of space wars had shifted away from the United States and the former Soviet Union — which are the only other two countries to independently send a human into orbit — to Asia, with China, India and Japan in the fray.

“Now you have a new breed of satellites, micro-satellites and the Chinese are targetting all these areas. Indian labour is cheap, scientific manpower is cheap. We are catching up with Chinese on the launch platform,” he said.

India's space programme took off in 1962 when the Indian National Committee for Space Research was set up to test rockets. Seven years later, the premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation was formed and in 1975 the first satellite Aryabhata was launched.

The first operational Indian remote sensing satellite was launched in 1988 while the communications satellite INSAT took off in 1982, the first of six such satellites sent into orbit.

India is eyeing the lucrative satellite launch vehicle market and is presently developing technology to launch four-tonne satellites.

“It is not a question of rivalry alone,” said P C Agrawal, analyst at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. “China is sending a message to the United States and Russia that it has come of technological age.

“…We should also be in the race because if we do not send missions we will not be able to express our claim in future,” he said. Sunder Rajan, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, which decides on government funding for scientific projects, said China may be ahead, but India was doing its best to catch up.

“There is an effort to match Chinese dominance. The path that India is taking for the moon mission is important. New materials and systems will surface,” he said.

“We can match them down the lane (because) in some areas of technology we are better, such as electronics,” Rajan said.