Private players welcome in India’s Space journey, but ISRO needs an organizational revamp to focus on R&D

CHENNAIWritten By: Sidharth MPUpdated: May 28, 2020, 12:57 PM IST
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Today, ISRO is fully dependent on two launch vehicles in the PSLV and GSLV series, both of which were conceptualized back in the 1970s and 80s.

In a recent press conference, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman announced that the Private sector will be a co-traveller in India’s Space journey. The announcement was made as a part of Policy reforms to fast-track Investment effort towards Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India). But beyond the participation of private players and industry partners, ISRO needs much more impetus from within and outside in order to establish itself as a big player in the highly-competitive 21st-century Global market. 

Today, ISRO is fully dependent on two launch vehicles in the PSLV and GSLV series, both of which were conceptualized back in the 1970s and 80s. While ISRO has innovated and performed inter-planetary, deep space exploration missions with these(lesser-power) rockets, India is nowhere near self-reliance in terms of launch capability. It is lamentable, that in the last 27 years our Space agency hasn’t developed an engine(fuelled by earth-storable propellants) that is more powerful than the Vikas Engine, which was based on the French Viking engine. 

India still pays for the French Rocket Ariane V to launch our own satellites that weigh over 4-tons. This highlights the pressing need for more powerful high-thrust liquid propulsion engines and cryogenic engines that can improve the payload capacity of our rockets, especially at a time when India is aiming for manned missions(Gaganyaan). 

For perspective, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket (their smallest) can lift twice as much payload as India’s most powerful rocket the GSLV Mark III. SpaceX most powerful rocket Falcon Heavy can lift six times as much payload as the Mark III. So when foreign customers approach ISRO, it is only for launching the smallest of their satellites, most of which are built by start-ups and students. Launching such small payloads does bring in revenue, but this amounts to hardly anything. ISRO’s share of the $350billion global space market is barely 2per cent.

“Private participation is welcome in production of existing rocket engines and in providing propellants, but ISRO must strictly remain focused on Research and Development. ISRO can keep the R&D of launch vehicles and thrusters with itself, due to the sensitive nature of the technology. However, we must also urgently develop launch vehicles with a payload capacity of at least 10-12 tons(thrice as much as current limit) to meet our national requirement”, S. Nambi Narayanan, Retd. Project Director 2nd, 4th stage of PSLV, Cryogenic Engine told WION.

In terms of satellites, ISRO has been designing and fabricating a wide range of them that are being used for communication, imaging, weather monitoring, remote-sensing, strategic purposes etc. However, this is also a field that can be thrown open to the private sector in a bigger way. It could mean allowing private players to conduct home-grown research and development in satellite technology and also the capability of building them indigenously based on the requirements of various agencies. Also, ISRO would need to start building state-of-the-art satellites that can also be sold to foreign customers. Presently, ISRO is only launching foreign satellites for a cost, but there’s a considerable market in fabricating satellites for customers.

“Now we have engineers from the private sector who are trained by ISRO for integrating satellites and manufacturing hardware. They take part in testing and qualifying the hardware. While ISRO has the facility to build 20 satellites simultaneously, we don’t have the required manpower and that’s where private talent can come in. We should have a scenario where private players can build satellites as per the needs of foreign customers”, Dr.Mylswamy Annadurai, Retd. Director, U.R. Rao Satellite Centre and Project Director Chandrayaan 1 told WION.

Given the large number of Indian agencies using ISRO satellites and their data, a system could be evolved where specific, mission-oriented satellites are launched based on the needs of the user. The user agency must also have the freedom to choose a private or an ISRO facility to fabricate the satellite on a payment basis. This would avoid the under-utilization of satellites arising from poor inter-agency coordination.

It is said that ISRO’s first launch from Sriharikota this year, that was slated for March 5th had to be called off as the user agency, the ground interface was not prepared to utilize the data that would be provided by the satellite. Earth Observation satellite GISAT-1 was to be launched into Geostationary orbit by the GSLV Mark-II rocket. Likewise, the GSAT-11, which is among the heaviest satellites built by ISRO is said to be unused since its launch in late 2018, as the ground interface and user-agencies weren’t prepared.

“Operating satellites require excellent communications, ground stations and other infrastructure. Development of grounds stations, terminals and software are also a big avenue for the private sector to explore. The competition arising from ideas, innovation and talent of the private sector is required to shake the inertia of ISRO” Dr Annadurai added. 

If we are to envision rocket launches by private industries from ISRO’s spaceport, then the country needs to revisit and update its age-old Space laws which were drafted two decades ago. There must also be a clear Space Policy that outlines what is ISRO’s mission and the plan for future deep-space exploration. Additional regulatory guidelines are also needed to codify the responsibilities of every participating agency and private industry. 

“Let’s say, God forbid, something goes wrong in a launch (in which a private player has a major role), who would take responsibility? There are liabilities involved and who would pay? There are so many commitments involved and our country would be answerable for any damage that may arise. We can’t point fingers after a mishap, we must proactively get a detailed framework”, Dr G. Madhavan Nair, Retd. Chairman, ISRO told WION.

Given the nature of space science where investments are high return are gradual, our policymakers must keep in mind that a considerable level of hand-holding would be necessary when throwing the doors open for private industries. However, for reasons unknown, ISRO to has not ben very enthused about allowing major private participation so far. 

“Considering the Indian scenario, replicating the US model of total privatization would be irrelevant, as US firms are military-funded and we in India don’t have a worthy aerospace industry. However, like Europe, we can have government funding, along with industry support.” Dr Nair added. 

Looking at post-launch, the commercial utility of communication satellites need to be explored further. It’s not just about private firms fabricating, assembling and launching satellites, but providing satellite communication services must be looked into. These services include leasing transponders for TV broadcasting, broadband services and many other ways of generating income.

Dr Annadurai says that this field has immense potential if we clear some hurdles. “The key issue is managing the vital frequency spectrum and this must be addressed by our policymakers. Young talent with fresh ideas from the private industry can infuse innovative solutions for effective use of communications frequencies thereby bringing greater connectivity speeds that can enable a truly Digital India. Policy on the usage of remote sensing satellite data would also draw more private players into space-tech” he added.

There is also a further need to re-organize ISRO’s activities from within, in order to achieve operational efficiency. This would mean keeping the routine tasks such as rocket launching, tracking and station-keeping of satellites under one division. Perhaps, in the long run, when the true potential of private industry has been unlocked, these tasks could also be handed over to the private sector, thus enabling ISRO to focus on the core task of Research and development. 

When we consider that ISRO was officially instituted in 1969 (at the start, in 1962 it was called INCOSPAR), the same year when America put a man on the moon, we must take pride in the fact that we have come thus far. ISRO must also be lauded for developing several critical technologies indigenously, but ISRO must not rest on its laurels. India’s formidable foundation and experience in space technology need to be fine-tuned for the 21st-century requirements, where foreign private companies are making rapid strides, not only in rocket-launching but also in private space travel and deep-space exploration. A good start for ISRO would be to immediately develop a higher-thrust liquid engine (propelled by Earth-Storable liquids) and a cryogenic engine for itself, besides state-of-the-art satellites that can compete in the international market.