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Future of Space in India

On May 16 this year, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman electrified the Space community with the bold announcement on boosting private participation in Space activities. Here is what the minister said:

  • Indian private sector will be a co-traveler in the country’s Space sector journey.
  • India will provide level playing field for private companies in satellites, launches and Space-based services.
  • India will provide predictable policy and regulatory environment to private players.
  • Private sector will be allowed to use ISRO facilities and other relevant assets to improve their capacities.
  • Future projects for planetary exploration, outer Space travel, etc. will be open for private sector.
  • There will be a liberal geospatial data policy for providing Remote Sensing data to tech-entrepreneurs.

Even though these bold statements have excited the Space communities in the technology and application areas, it needs to be said that a policy statement such as this, which gives a “feel good” warmth, needs to be followed up with cold and hard actions. A statement is not a policy. A policy needs to be backed up with processes which will give rise to programs and projects.

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When the US was losing the Space race to the erstwhile USSR, President John F. Kennedy declared in September 1962 that “we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” This was followed by the Apollo Program, and with Apollo 11, the first human, an American, stepped on the Moon in July 1969.

In these seven years, several US industries blossomed and grew into global Space giants which supported the US to further its Space ventures, till the tragic failures of the Space Shuttle, which effectively closed down human spaceflight from American soil on American vehicles. In the first decade of the new millennium, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and many other private Space startups jumped in with new ideas and new programs.

On May 30, after nine years, NASA astronauts have once again ridden into Space from US soil on a US built vehicle. The only difference being that the Falcon 9 launcher and the Crew Dragon spacecraft were designed, built and launched by SpaceX from a completely refurbished and, a very aesthetically attractive Pad 39A of the NASA launch complex. It is also important to note that an old hand like Boeing lost out to a bold startup like SpaceX.

Origins of ISRO and its core purpose

As far back as the early 1960s, a scientist, Vikram Sarabhai, working with the Department of Atomic Energy, realized that Space could play an important role in India’s development.  In 1962, he formed the Indian National Committee for Space Research, INCOSPAR, with the support of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. INCOSPAR was managed by the Physical Research Laboratory, which was a grant-in-aid institution of the Department of Atomic Energy.

Eventually INCOSPAR activities migrated to the Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO, a project of PRL. Under INCOSPAR and later ISRO, several projects were launched like sounding rockets for Space Sciences, Experimental Satellite Communications Earth Station for training in earth station operations, Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, etc.

In an address to the first UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, UNISPACE held in 1969, Vikram Sarabhai also recognized the importance of Remote Sensing for development, and these activities began under ISRO.

While the Indian Space Program is quite different from the US Space Program, and ISRO is quite different from NASA, it is necessary to learn from the US experience and those of other countries, to steer commercialization of Space activities in a “co-traveler” mode. It is also necessary to understand where ISRO stands today in terms of working with co-travelers. ISRO, it should be noted, is the primary research and development arm of the Department of Space, DOS. The key term is research and development.

R&D – an instrument of societal development

In 1971, Dr. Sarabhai, the architect of India’s nascent Space program, passed away, leaving an inchoate ISRO to Prof. Satish Dhawan, who took over in 1972 and gave it a direction and defined specific goals. Prof. Dhawan realized that ISRO needed to co-travel with other Indian entities in order to be relevant. Under his leadership, ISRO forged ahead with launchers, primarily PSLV, INSAT communications satellites and IRS Remote Sensing satellites. While the launchers would ultimately serve to launch Indian satellites, the satellites themselves would have to serve India meaningfully in terms of communications, broadcasting, meteorology and natural resources management.

Thanks to his far-sightedness, the Indian Space Program formed very useful relationships for both upstream and downstream activities. The Indian industry, both heavy industries and MSMEs, were roped in to supply the essential components of launch vehicles and satellites. At the same time, ISRO engaged with the end users of communications, meteorology and natural resources management to evolve meaningful uses of the satellites in these areas.

Transformation of ISRO from research to operational institution

Most old ISRO hands wonder since when did a primarily R&D organization become an operational agency for the manufacture of launchers, communications satellites and Remote Sensing satellites, and the provision of services for launches, communications satellite management and Remote Sensing data services? It happened over time.

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Diversion from core purpose to internalization of ISRO

From the heady and challenging days of working with other organizations, ISRO has steadily internalized its activities and turned itself into a launcher and satellite production and service agency. There is precious little R&D that goes on which we are aware about. The small satellite launch vehicle is an afterthought, as the same has been already proposed by NewSpace India participants. While the development of the cryogenic engine is significant, it should be noted that it got delayed due to a decision to tie up with Russia for the cryogenic engines and the subsequent geopolitical maneuvers and events.

We are far behind in the development of reusable launchers because our attention is more on increasing the number of launches. When PSLV is built with nearly 80% of contracted components, what is holding ISRO back from passing on the manufacture and launch activities of PSLV to the industry and concentrating on new developments in launcher technologies?

In applications too, the much vaunted 160 projects to be executed by end users to give a fillip to the use of Remote Sensing data by end user departments were internalized to a set of Bhuvan maps prepared by ISRO. There are hardly any applications that are significant, and that extend the capabilities of modeling and analysis. While data science has taken the world by storm, ISRO seems to be well insulated from these advances. There have been no significant developments in the communications field either on satellites or on the ground. IRNSS is an exception, but two years after its commissioning, its usage is still minimal.

The worst action of internalization was the unnecessary creation of the Remote Sensing Data Policy. Till this came, IRS data was available openly. On the other hand, decades old policies of Survey of India made it difficult for scientists to acquire topographic maps, particularly of coastal and international boundary areas, essential for the analysis of satellite imagery. Similarly, policies of the Ministries of Home and Defence made it extremely difficult to acquire aerial photographs and imagery, which were useful as supplementary data.

The RSDP ensured that ISRO joined the dubious club of data deniers. The decision to canalize import of high resolution imagery is another chokepoint which smacks of conflict of interest. While the unstated desire is to promote high resolution IRS data, the RSDP effectively denies this data to users other than from the government or government-sponsored projects.

Worse still was its decision to sell imagery which was being generated using taxpayers’ money. The result was to drive away potential users from industry and academia. Ostensibly, Bhuvan is designed to make data available to end users for free. In reality, Bhuvan, with its poor bandwidth, is no match for Landsat and Sentinel data, which are available free to download from the Cloud, but policy restrictions prevent ISRO from doing the same.

Deterioration of leadership and disempowerment of young generation

The journey of ISRO under a Chairman who could boldly go out and face a hostile media after the failure of the first SLV launch to a Chairman whose prime interest is to launch, launch and launch, and who cries on the shoulders of the Prime Minister after the failure of the Chandrayaan lander is not one that instills confidence in the organization’s ability to co-travel with potential challengers in the fields of technology and applications.

Given this scenario, ISRO is most unsuited to take on the task of encouraging co-travelers. There is too much of bureaucratization and severe conflict of interest. The sad stories of Devas and TeamIndus strengthen this view. Leaving operational activities to others more suited for the task will be painful for ISRO because over time, it has given birth to a Siamese twin of R&D and operations. While the R&D is in the ICU, the operations part is thriving.

ISRO has world-class facilities for fabrication and testing, which are used by both, but operations get a higher priority and R&D suffers. Also, working on operational projects with a short life span is more interesting, as it gives greater short-term visibility and therefore better career progression for the staff. R&D requires patience and the use of brain power. Success is slow in coming and not guaranteed.

Commercialization of capabilities

It should be noted that ISRO is just a part of the Department of Space, which is the main body akin to NASA. However, because of its size and the nature of its growth, it is easy to confuse ISRO with DOS and use the acronyms interchangeably. DOS has two other units which are not a part of ISRO. These include Antrix Corporation Limited, ACL, and New Space India, NSI. The latter should not be confused with NewSpace India, which represents an informal consortium of private Space entrepreneurs.

ACL is dubbed as the commercial arm of ISRO and is engaged in providing Space products and services to international customers worldwide. It is really the commercial arm of DOS, but it uses all ISRO facilities and manpower to further its business. Started as a one-and-a- half person organization, housed in ISRO headquarters, it relies heavily on the Space organization without any benefit to it in terms of sharing profits or even funding research there. In short, ISRO is forced into operational and commercial tasks through ACL, neglecting its mandated role of R&D, much to its detriment as explained above.

NSI was set up recently with the “primary mandate of enabling Indian industries to scale up high-technology manufacturing and production base for Indian Space Program”. Both ACL and NSI are wholly owned Government of India entities under the administrative control of DOS. It seems that while ACL is to market ISRO products and services abroad, NSI is to encourage industry to scale up to meet ISRO requirements of high technology manufacturing.

It is clear from the above information that the vision of DOS viz-a-viz private industry is one of managing contractors for ISRO requirements and not one of encouraging independent co-travelers. In order to realize the independent participation of private industry in Space activities, the government needs to look beyond ISRO-DOS.

Structural reforms and strengthening of research and exploration

To be able to bring the policy statement to reality requires a major overhaul of government led Space activities. Only then will the promises be realizable.

The first need is of a Space policy, which is hanging fire for long. Such a policy is needed to encourage a vibrant space industry independent of ISRO-DOS. Such a policy must emerge from the Space industry and user communities, and not be driven by ISRO-DOS. One such draft by an organization, Takshashila Institution, needs to be considered seriously.

Secondly, ISRO needs to be restructured by removing all operational activities including their related facilities and services. All services should be with ACL. The huge facilities in ISRO funded by the government should be made into national Space technology fabrication and testing assets which are open to both ISRO-DOS and Industry impartially. NSIL should be repurposed to manage these assets on behalf of the Government of India.

ISRO should concentrate on advanced launchers, payloads and ground systems for Earth related applications, Space Sciences and Human in Space programs. While interaction with ACL and NSIL will be necessary, it should be on strictly commercial terms as applicable to other co-travelers.

Commercialization of capabilities and scalability of societal impact

One of the very interesting ideas that has been posted recently is the possibility of independent industries to meet the needs of the defense forces independent of ISRO which is essentially a civilian organization. It is also possible that private communications service providers could fund communications satellites using the MEO, as is happening in the rest of the world, maybe for 5G services for example. The same could apply for Remote Sensing constellations.

The Government should break away and do only those things that industry cannot do. These include developing advanced technologies and systems for healthcare, education, Space sciences and humans in Space. Leave the industry to find its own way and do their own thing guided by an enabling Space policy which should be reviewed and modified from time to time in consultation with all stakeholders.

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