The ISRO isn’t enough. India needs its own Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos

Up, up and away.
Up, up and away.
Image: AP/M. Lakshman
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After five decades, India’s space program has evolved considerably, and has finally earned its right to be considered an established space player. But the future looks complicated.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)—India’s NASA, if we must—was established a few decades after the country gained independence. At the time, the government had to justify spending precious resources on a space program when millions of its people were mired in poverty. For this reason, India’s space program has focused on developmental missions right from the beginning; mainly establishing communication satellites, weather forecasting, and remote sensing technology. It has since become one of the most cost-effective space industries in the world.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, or Mangalyaan (“Mars craft” in Hindi), cost around $73 million—less than what it cost to make Hollywood space films like Gravity and The Martian, as some like to point out. The recently rescheduled Chandrayaan-2 mission to land an Indian lunar module on the moon was similarly cost efficient.

Of course, we have to acknowledge that India’s space missions have been far less ambitious and complicated, and have carried much smaller payloads compared to those of global space giants like NASA.

Growing private sector pains

The program now faces a serious capacity crunch in meeting its mission requirements, which has compelled the ISRO to begin reaching out to the private sector, specifically to engage small Indian commercial space enterprises. The Bangalore-based Alpha Design Technologies Private Limited was commissioned to manufacture a series of satellites. Bellatrix Aerospace Private Limited has been contracted to work on advanced in-space propulsion systems.

But collaborating with the private sector has not been an easy move for the government-funded (and managed) ISRO.

Take, for example, when the program decided to privatize one of its smaller rockets, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, about a decade back. The PSLV is a tried and tested rocket. Passing it on to the private sector should have permitted the ISRO to focus on other more vital areas such as developing new, larger rockets, or focusing on human space flight and space exploration.

But bureaucratic resistance to helping India’s private space enterprises, even from within the ISRO, means the organization still has not succeeded in transferring the PSLV to the private sector.

This is not to suggest that the ISRO is entirely against private sector participation in the country’s space sector. Earlier this year the Indian Cabinet approved a new commercial enterprise called NewSpace India Limited, or NSIL, under India’s Department of Space.

It has been yet another effort to build ISRO’s relationship with the private sector and to expand the commercialization of the Indian space program as a whole. The NSIL is supposed to help with technology transfer from the ISRO to private players, including India’s small satellite launch vehicle program and the older PSLV.

The NSIL is also meant to help promote space-based products and other spin-off technologies.

It’s difficult to predict where this new private-sector experiment will take the ISRO, but if we look back to one previous attempt with a similar initiative, the Antrix corporation, we should be somewhat concerned. The Antrix Corporation was set up in 1992 and became the first commercial initiative within the ISRO. Its primary objective was to facilitate ISRO’s commercial launch of foreign satellites, but it’s yielded underwhelming results.

Is cost-effectiveness enough?

The cost factor, as it turns out, remains an exceptional aspect of India’s space program. ISRO’s PSLV remains the workhorse of the agency, and it still offers one of the cheapest and most reliable ways to launch small satellites into space.

There are plenty of other private and state players in the small satellite launch market, such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and others, including competitive start-ups in China. But the PSLV has been remarkably durable, consistent, and is still one of the most attractive options from an industry standpoint.

The launch list

The ISRO has a long way to go if it wants to fully exploit its advantages. For one, it has to be much more proactive in seeking deals with foreign markets. If India used space as an effective tool for diplomacy, it would bring in some much-needed revenue to the Department of Space, and it would also help expand India’s strategic reach into other countries.

India has to increase its number of missions per year if the ISRO wants to remain competitive.

The country has taken on the impressive challenge of doubling its average to 12 missions per year in a five-year period, but the true challenge is sustaining this rate into the foreseeable future.

This is a crucial step if India plans to capture a sizeable chunk of the global commercial space market, especially with keen competitors like China, which has committed to launching 30 satellite in 2019.

Other urgent action points for the ISRO include increasing its launch infrastructure starting with the number of launch pads. The same goes for its satellite manufacturing capabilities.

Not only is partnering with emerging private space enterprises a viable and ready solution to the ISRO’s capacity problems, but it will not diminish ISRO’s importance—look at the US’s successful and heavily privatized national space sector as an example.

Getting the private sector to shoulder some of the burden will not diminish the importance in India’s space story. If anything, it will bolster India’s economic reputation.

By passing on routine commercial launch activities to the private sector, the ISRO could position itself to focus on even bigger missions. It can turn its attention to major plans like Gaganyaan, India’s mission to human space mission planned for 2022, set to coincide with India’s 75th year of independence.

We find ourselves at an interesting and complex juncture with India’s national space program. The ISRO’s profile has grown in recent years, with major initiatives like the Mars mission ranking India in with the top five global players in outer space.

But India’s ability to stay competitive at a time when there are a growing number of space actors—including commercial ones—depends on the country’s willingness to embrace its own private sector to stay on a level playing field.