The year 2018 will be very crucial for the space sector in India. We are going to witness not one but two Indian missions to the moon. We have all heard of Chandrayaan-2, the second lunar mission slated to be launched in 2018. This is an advance over Chandrayaan-1, which was a lunar orbiter launched in 2008. Chandrayaan-2 is a lander and a rover.
However, not many of us have heard about another Indian mission to the moon that is quietly getting ready for launch around the same time as Chandrayaan-2. This one is going to be India’s first private sector space mission, and a mission to the moon, to be executed in a record time. The mission is taking shape at Team Indus, a space start-up in Bengaluru. A private sector mission to the moon heralds a new chapter in India’s space foray. In fact, Bengaluru is home to close to three dozen start-ups in the space sector. These firms are breaking the monopoly of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in many ways. Team Indus is the first one to fabricate a spacecraft in private sector in India, though it is going to depend on ISRO for launching its probe to the moon.
Several other companies are working on different aspects of the space business. In fact, much of the success achieved by the space agency in the past two decades has a lot to with the involvement of the private sector. Several Indian companies have been associated with the space programme as suppliers of components, sub-assemblies, rocket fuel, etc.
They have developed the capability and experience of producing space-ready materials and systems. If that is so, why can’t they also make satellites and launch on their own, at least the ones for which technology has been well established? They can also tap into vast human resources developed by various agencies of ISRO over the years. It is this thinking which is giving rise to a private space industry.
However, this development is taking place in a policy vacuum. The role of ISRO has been dominant till now and India did not feel the need to have a national space policy. The space agency sets its own scientific and operational goals as well as vision and executes them with funding from the government. If the private sector is to play a role in the space sector along with ISRO, we need a policy framework and also set the stage for engagement of private firms.
Just as Team Indus decided to develop a lunar mission, if a private company wants to develop a spaceport, will it be allowed to do so or not? There are many questions like this in which we need clarity. Private players have made a good beginning, but for them to grow to their full potential they need support — both capital as well as a clear national space policy framework. ISRO itself could take the lead by creating start-up incubators and providing necessary help to them.
Greater role by private players
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is making a “natural progression” towards privatisation in the space sector, its chairman, Kiran Kumar said. “It is a natural progression, if you see whether it is land, ocean, air and now space. Space is also a frontier,” Kumar said while delivering the Vikram Sarabhai Memorial Lecture at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi. “Initially government agencies and governments have started the work, globally also private and commercial enterprises are getting into space adventure, tourism exploration and exploitation.” Kumar explained that ISRO was already heavily reliant on the industry to manufacture its launch vehicles with almost 80% of the launch vehicle activities being outsourced to the industry. Other space agencies, most notably NASA have already leveraged the private sector providing launch facilities for private companies to use their own launch vehicles and satellites. With greater demand for satellite launches it is economical to let private companies do the more mundane work of launching and maintaining satellites and using taxpayer’s money for research and development.
However, India is only taking baby steps in that direction. The ISRO joint venture with private players will involve a polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) being wholly produced by private players, but the satellite and launch station will be provided by ISRO. A consortium of industry players will come together to partner with ISRO, official sources said. The space agency has held meetings with a group of companies including Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Godrej and L&T. “In the coming years we won’t be surprised if there is a big spurt in use of space technology, including both hardware development and application,” Kumar said. There are already over 500 small, medium and large industries that manufacture hardware used in space technology. There are also plans to develop an industrial complex at ISRO’s space launch station at Sriharikota to manufacture and assemble launch vehicles. There are two launch pads in Sriharikota and it would save time if the launch vehicles were assembled close to the launch pad.