The recent achievements of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)—from the mammoth launch of 104 satellites by its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C37 in a single mission to the development and successful deployment of the South Asia Satellite for communications—have earned India a place in the elite club of nations with advanced space capabilities. The government committing Rs 10,500 crore to the space agency for building 10 Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and 30 workhorse PSLV rockets over 2019-2024 clearly spells out India’s space ambitions.
But, what has truly far-reaching impact is that the Rs 6,131-crore commitment for PSLVs requires Isro to increase industry participation in the rocket programme. To be sure, this is something the space agency has been doing steadily over the recent years—it has already begun technology transfer to an industry consortium that includes Godrej Aerospace, L&T, and even public-sector Hindustan Aeronautics. The consortium that has been contributing rocket systems so far—nearly 80% of the development work on launch vehicles has already been outsourced, though under Isro supervision—will now be involved in rocket assembly at Isro facilities. This will be in keeping with the government-Isro-industry vision of getting the private sector ready for taking over the PSLV programme on an end-to-end basis, coordinated by Antrix, Isro’s commercial arm.
Former Isro chief AS Kiran Kumar had highlighted how the space agency was struggling to serve India’s emerging space technology needs being the lone player—India’s 34 working communication satellites serve less than half of the country’s needs. Besides, given there are pending and emerging needs of both the government and industry, developing an ecosystem for private sector space companies to supplement Isro’s efforts has become urgent. Though Indian policy allows private players to operate communication satellites under the regulation of the Committee for Authorising the establishment and operations of Indian Satellite Systems—this dates back to a policy from 2000—the sparse industry participation since shows this hasn’t helped much.
Meanwhile, the US, the EU and even China have encouraged industry participation—and much of this happened with technology transfer from their respective space agencies. Recent US legislations, such as the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act that will outline the regulatory framework for private sector space technology deployment and the Nasa Transition Authorization Act that directs the American space agency to work more closely with industry in areas such as Earth observation and deep space exploration, put the country at the forefront of government-private collaboration in space technology. Even as Isro makes commendable progress on low-cost launches and satellite missions, a SpaceX is already working on closing that gap with its cutting-edge technology on reusable rockets and much heavier payload-capacity.
Isro’s funding will need to increase 12 times from FY19’s budget allocation of $1.6 billion if it is to match Nasa’s 2018 allocation of $20.7 billion—and that’s after the US has been scaling back the budget for Nasa (this year’s was the highest allocation since 2009). The continually increasing private sector competence in the US and China means India has little time to lose if it has to maintain and build on the advantages of its recent leap-frogging in space-tech.