ISRO welcomes Private Cos in Space Research, they have to take risks and get returns: Dr K Sivan

NEW DELHIWritten By: Sidharth MPUpdated: Jun 25, 2020, 08:07 PM IST

File Photo: ISRO Chief K Sivan. Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

WION had earlier reported about how Private players were welcome in India’s Space journey, but ISRO needs an organizational revamp to enhance focus on R&D.

A day after India’s Union Cabinet, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved setting up of IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre), ISRO Chairman Dr K. Sivan elaborated on the vision and the way ahead. 

WION had earlier reported about how Private players were welcome in India’s Space journey, but ISRO needs an organizational revamp to enhance focus on R&D.

In a televised address, Dr Sivan said that, as India transits into a new space era start-ups and private industries are enabled to play a significant role in the space sector. “Private companies can play a bigger role than just supply of parts and components. They will be enabled to perform end-to-end space services, from building and launching rockets and satellites to owning satellites and providing space-based services. These activities will be open to big and small industries, start-ups and academia”, he said.

While adding that the IN_SPACe board may take 3-6 months to become operational, Dr Sivan said that Private companies could apply even now for different functions and get their requests processed in fast-track mode. He also said that the existing policies would be modified to make this system function effectively to provide fair and equitable space for Private enterprises. 

In an Exclusive Interview, Dr Sivan, Chairman ISRO & Secretary Department of Space shared the vision behind the reforms that are being rolled out and elaborated on the progress of various current and future missions. 

WION: Currently private players manufacture and supply components for our rockets and satellites, but what is your long-term vision and when can they perform end-to-end operations? 

Dr Sivan: As you said private players are supplying components and modules. But space activities involves making the rockets, spacecraft, providing services and other things. This reform that we are talking about is enabling them to carry out space activities such as rocket-building, satellite building, owning spacecraft and providing services. That is the vision and purpose of this reform. 

WION: By when are we expecting this to materialize, because this seems to be a long term plan, as also the Minister had specified yesterday. 

Dr Sivan: We are providing the platform for the private players to do the work. When and how they will be able to come into these activities, we have to wait and see. Already some start-ups have been working on these activities.

WION: Space is one field that involves extremely high investment, high risk and also the return on investment is quite slow. How do you think our private sector and start-ups will be able to match up to this level of investment?

Dr Sivan: They (private players) have to take high risks. For high investment, we are supporting them in this aspect by allowing them to share our facilities. So they need not establish high-cost facilities on their own. That way some easing of the burden will be there. Regarding the return of investment, there are some sectors that offer a lot of return, such as applications, ground-segment of satellites. Returns may be very small in rockets or spacecraft and they are risky also. I am sure that the private sector will take care of all these things and do the needful to become entrepreneurs in this area. 

WION: Many decades from now, when this vision becomes a reality, are we looking at ISRO purely focusing on R&D and routine launch operations being outsourced to private companies? 

Dr Sivan: This plan is not about giving any work of ISRO to private companies. We must keep in mind that we are allowing private people to do the job, it is not that some job of ISRO is removed and given to private players. Industries will be enabled to carry out these activities and ISRO will continue its duties. ISRO will have to spend more time and energy on advanced technology development, advanced missions and national missions, in addition to existing duties. We are asking industry to get involved in space activities and that is our vision. 

WION: Is this reform an attempt to replicate a Western model of a Military-Industry-Academia nexus? Because, that is what led to success of their space programmes?

Dr Sivan: Definitely it will finally involve the industries to get more and more involvement in the activities and these reforms will pave the way for that. 

WION: Would ISRO be charging the private industries for offering them training and resources? How will this be worked out?

Dr Sivan: It may be charged basis only, but specifics such as how much would be charged, would be decided on a case-to-case basis. 

WION: In the case of rocket launches by private firms, will private companies be operating the entire launch apparatus or will they hand over complete rockets for ISRO to do the launching? 

Dr Sivan: We have to see their requests, what they are expecting us to share and contribute. We need to discuss that aspect and it is all based on their requests. We will decide based on what they (industry) come up with. 

WION: There are apprehensions raised about sensitive, dual-use nature of rocket and specifically launch vehicle technology. How are we going to deal with it as very few countries have this technology?

Dr Sivan: One of the directorates as a part of IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre) will be Safety and Security, legal directorates. We are thinking of 5 directorates in total such as, technical, safety&security, legal, monitoring and promotion. These directorates will take care of all the aspects that we are referring to. 

WION: When it comes to having launches by private firms, we should be having multiple contingency plans in place. Rocket science is risky and there could be mishaps. Who takes up responsibility in such cases? 

Dr Sivan: That is the discretion of the particular arm called IN-SPACe and they have to have a mechanism. We will also be having the Space Act Bill and that will define the responsibilities. 

WION: Pertaining to the development of India’s Semi-Cryogenic engine, how far have we come and how many years until we have a more powerful engine? Will private players be allowed to build sophisticated components such as thrusters and engines?

Dr Sivan: Private players will definitely be allowed to build rocket engines, but it requires a lot of investment. If they are ready to do it, we welcome them to invest work on the task. ISRO’s Semi-cryogenic engine development is going on and soon we will be getting the test results. Because of the lockdown and Covid-19 scenario, our activities were affected for some time. I’m sure that things will be relaxed and in better shape after some time. 

WION: We are curious to know how India’s top scientists are perhaps working from home during these unprecedented times. How much is ISRO able to WFH, without the labs and equipment?

Dr Sivan: Our activities involve many things including software development, documentation, review, and lab-work among others. Many activities such as reviewing, designing, documentation etc we could easily work from home. Once the partial unlock began, we start making use of our labs also. 

WION: 2020-21 is a busy year for ISRO with a lot of big-ticket projects. We have Chandrayaan 3, Gaganyaan, Aditya L1, and NI-SAR. How are we going to catch up once normalcy resumes?

Dr Sivan: It is a difficult question. We need to pick up the pace, once the situation becomes normal. We will work out a strategy and wait for things to become normal. 

WION: Around November 2019, ISRO had a record 3 launches in a span of 35 days. Do you think we will scale up the capability to that limit hereafter?

Dr Sivan: Definitely, always we have been making records and here also we will do it. 

WION: We are talking about the vision of Self-reliant India. When can we expect Indian rockets to compete in the big league of rockets and lift over 10tons to geostationary orbit? 

Dr Sivan: Rocket development requires and huge investment and another testing. 

If private players are willing to invest such money, we welcome them to produce huge rockets. Otherwise, ISRO has a plan to develop huge rockets that are meant to launch the heavy payload.

WION: Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) was to make its debut this year. In what stage is the SSLV project and when can we expect the launch?

Dr Sivan: We are very close to achieving the mission, but we are waiting for Covid-19 and its related issues to come to a better situation.