2014. I was in grad school at that time and will never forget seeing a demeaning cartoon in the New York Times making fun of India’s Mangalyaan robotic probe into orbit around Mars. The illustration portrayed that India was nowhere close to the elite space club.
Fast forward to 2019. I ask my nieces and a few other high school students about the Vikram Lander and the moon. These kids are quite well-informed and were aware of Chandrayaan 2. But when I asked them why they thought this was significant, I was baffled at the unclarity and weak responses I got. It was quite evident that the importance of space exploration was not at all ‘a thing’ for them.
Since its inception in 1969, ISRO has significantly evolved and has come into the elite space club. Yet, it is not as popular as the USA’s NASA or Russia’s space agency Roscosmos. Why? Well, ISRO was first established after India gained independence. In terms of funding, the government had to justify why spending would be allotted to ISRO versus those in poverty. And for these reasons, ISRO focused on missions that were developmental in nature.
Things like weather forecasting and communication satellites. By doing this on lower budgets, ISRO is one of the most cost-effective space industries on the planet. But now that India has entered the elite space club, it is high time that the people of India- especially the youth- understand the significance and importance of space exploration. To do this, ISRO must focus on the following things.
When NASA was founded, the US space program was determined to differentiate itself from the USSR. It would instead be an ‘open program’ in which facts and data would flow freely between the agency and the public. For that, an aggressive public relations team was built. The aim? Not just releasing information but also explaining astronomy, rockets and complicated physics to the lay person clearly and accurately. NASA’s PR created items that addressed reporters needs along with background material. They also produced broadcasts and held media symposiums. Every mission was explained before the launch and reported with text and visuals. An example? Before Apollo 11’s launch, NASA’s public affairs office gave journalists an entire binder with detailed diagrams of the spacesuit, the command module and even oxygen tanks. By doing this in a consistent manner, NASA not only helped the USA enter the elite space club but also sold space education to the masses.
In the same manner, ISRO should consider doing this. Chandrayaan2 has put Indian space exploration on the global radar. ISRO not only launched satellites but also has several cool unique initiatives that engage the youth of the country. The latest student satellite was launched in 2019 itself. ISRO should take up NASA’s approach and aggressively push for more information, statistics and details to get out to the public. It is not just enough to put it on their website. Press releases can be held along with symposiums explaining launches to the masses. In these public relations events and materials, ISRO should also actively engage with the youth. Scientists and engineers should visit schools more often to try and engage youth with space exploration and how they can get involved.
Earlier this year, the Central Government approved a commercial enterprise- NewSpace India Limited (NSIL)- under India’s Department of Space as an effort to build ISRO-private sector relationships and to expand ISRO commercialisation as well. NSIL helps with technology transfer between ISRP and private players along with promoting space-based products and spin-off technologies. While ISRO currently is and should remain government-funded and managed, getting the private sector to take some of the burdens of space exploration will not diminish ISRO’s reputation. In contrast, it will bolster it with more funding, more ideas and people and more cutting edge technology. With the increased partnership with private players, ISRO can focus on things that will help it grow as an organisation itself and also grow mainstream with the Indian masses. This includes human space flight, space exploration and developing larger and more cutting edge rockets.
Another thing that ISRO must focus on at the earliest is making deals with foreign markets. This can both be a tool for diplomacy, as well as, bringing in revenue for further missions. With that being said, India needs to increase its number of missions annually if ISRO wants to remain in the same league as the elite space players. Working on space exploration with other countries would not just be great for diplomacy. A great move happened just last week with India launching the CARTOSAT along with American satellites in the same mission. Collaborating more with the global commercial space market will also help keep competitors like China at bay.
ISRO should be proud of itself and citizens should be proud of how ISRO has propelled India's global respect. But think about this. Despite not maximising its potential [yet] in marketing, outreach, private partnerships and foreign collaboration, ISRO STILL ranks in the top five global space players. Now, how can India go from ‘within the top five’ to number 1'? Marketing will educate the masses to the importance of every mission. Youth, in particular, need to be engaged. Private partnerships will not only bring in more innovation and revenue, but will also help ISRO focus on more advanced missions like human space exploration. Finally, collaborating with foreign space players will both increase ISRO productivity and work as a great diplomacy tool. This is the need of the hour for ISRO. This is because there are more space actors than ever before; both government and commercial players. If ISRO does not act quickly, India’s elite status can slide away as quickly as it has risen.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)