NEW DELHI — American outsourcing to India is approaching a new frontier: outer space.
The two nations' space agencies signed an agreement Tuesday in India's high-tech hub of Bangalore to fly two U.S. lunar mapping instruments on India's unmanned mission to orbit the moon, scheduled for 2008.
Because sending a U.S. spacecraft to the moon again remains a possibility only in the distant future, NASA is taking advantage of India's invitation to piggyback on its space exploration. Indian media reported that NASA's instruments would ride for free.
The joint space venture is part of the Bush administration's effort to forge a close strategic partnership with India, which includes a proposed deal on civilian nuclear cooperation that is awaiting approval by Congress.
"There was a period of time between our nations where, because of nuclear proliferation issues and other factors, the ability to cooperate on technical matters was less strong than it is today," NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin told reporters after signing the deal with G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization.
President Bush's effort to resolve those issues "has contributed greatly to future possibilities and I'm happy to be a small part of that," added Griffin, the first NASA chief to visit India in 30 years.
India is in a new space race with neighboring economic giant China, which plans to send its own lunar orbiter to map the moon's surface in 2007, followed by a robotic rover by 2012. China became the third country to achieve manned spaceflight when it sent an astronaut to orbit the Earth in October 2003.
Under Tuesday's agreement with NASA, India's $89-million mission to orbit the moon for two years will include U.S. scientific payloads that will search for ice in polar areas under permanent shadow and map minerals on the moon's surface.
They will be among 15 to 20 instruments on the spacecraft, including five made in India, such as a moon impact probe that will crash onto the lunar surface. The European Space Agency plans to provide three more devices. A fourth will come from Bulgaria. The Indian spacecraft is expected to orbit 62 miles above the lunar surface.
Beyond improving ties with India, the Bush administration wants to prepare for the possibility of sending American astronauts back to the moon, as a steppingstone to any manned mission to Mars.
But critics see the multinational mission to explore the moon from an Indian spacecraft as a threat to the long-term U.S. strategy of preventing the spread of nuclear missiles.
India's first rocket to the moon, called Chandrayaan-1, will be one of its towering, four-stage Polar Space Launch Vehicles, which India has used in the past to launch satellites into Earth's orbit.
Experts have long warned that the same rocket could also be armed with a nuclear warhead and turned into an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, capable of hitting cities in Europe, China or the U.S.
Richard Speier, an author of the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary agreement among the U.S. and 33 other countries, argues that space cooperation with India weakens that pact.
"I should emphasize that the MTCR, and all of nonproliferation, is a policy of line-drawing," Speier, a Pentagon nonproliferation specialist from 1982 to 1994, said from Reston, Va. "Weaken or erase the line and you weaken or erase the efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
India is not a signatory to the missile technology control agreement and also refuses to sign the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But during a March summit here, Bush reached an agreement with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to renew civilian nuclear cooperation.
The nuclear deal requires approval from Congress. Opponents argue that it would allow India to expand its nuclear weapons program because the country would be allowed to bar international inspectors from reactors producing fissile material.
U.S. cooperation with India in space began with the birth of India's space program in the early 1960s, but the Clinton administration imposed an embargo on space and nuclear cooperation following India's surprise nuclear tests in 1998.
Speier warned that joint space missions with the U.S. and other countries, along with technology transfers, could help India's military build better and more accurate rockets that could become ICBMs.
Although India has not declared any intention to build ICBMs, Speier wrote in a research paper that "many, many steps have been taken to this end."
Future Indian governments might be less friendly to the U.S., Speier wrote.
"The U.S. should not believe that it is possible to separate India's civilian space launch program -- the incubator of its long-range missiles -- from India's military program."