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Can Space Missions pay for themselves?

The NASA.gov website succinctly puts the space missions in their perspective “Thousands of people have been working around the world — and off of it — for decades, trying to answer some basic questions. What’s out there? How do we get there? What will we find? What can we learn there, or learn just by trying to get there, that will make life better here on Earth?” These questions are not in the realm of fiction. The efforts of the five space agencies, the American, Russian, European, Chinese and Indian, add up to a very interesting future for humanity in space. It is possible that the future will have permanent human outposts on the Moon, Mars, and maybe even on the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. It’s not farfetched to think that they will bear the insignia and flags of many nations and agencies.


Though the first four Nations are much ahead in space exploration, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is one among the top space exploration agencies in the world with a record of more than 100 successful space missions. They have by far the most cost-effective journeys in space. From the first satellite Aryabhata launched from a Russian facility in 1975, the country has come far to launch its second lunar mission Chandrayaan-2, in a relatively short time. Chandrayaan 2 with three modules the Orbiter, Lander -Vikram and Rover – Pragyan is expected to soft land on the Moon this 7th September on its south pole, a huge technological challenge. In the main, the space program serves the Nation’s social, scientific and security needs and achieves self-reliance in Space Technology.


The successful expeditions will result in the capability to undertake future manned missions apart from locating possible signs of life and exploring the South Pole. Further, Moon exploration for minerals would be very important.  However, one of the most important efforts of the Country’s space program is the commercial aspect. In March this year the Indian Cabinet cleared the establishment of a private institution, the Newspace India Limited (NSIL), under the department of Space with a paid-up capital of around $1 million marking it as a follow-up of the government’s plan to make space a major industry under its Vision 2030 announced in this year’s interim budget.


The new institution is the second commercial arm of the ISRO after the Antrix Corporation, set up in 1992 primarily to facilitate ISRO’s commercial launch of foreign satellites. The major goal for the NSIL will be to facilitate the transfer of ISRO technologies to private industries as well as aid in marketing space-based products and spin-off technologies. The technology transfer envisaged through the NSIL will include India’s small satellite program, the small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) program and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Further, a January 2019 notice on the ISRO website had shortlisted ten domestic industries for the technology transfer with regard to lithium-ion cell technology. What better advertisement can be there for the flagship program of the government “Make in India”


ISRO’s effort at privatization and commercial engagements will become even more important, with the first test flight of SSLV and launch of some defence satellites scheduled in the next few months this year. As the sector expands, remaining competitive is important. Obviously, China and other foreign players are the competitors in a very competitive market. The Indian small satellites market, probably will lead with advantages it offers on the cost to manufacture and launch. However, merely being cost effective may not be enough. There are plenty of other private and state players in the small satellite launch market, such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and others, including competitive start-ups in China.

Today, the value of the global space industry is estimated to be $350 billion and is likely to exceed $550 billion by 2025. Despite ISRO’s impressive capabilities, India’s share is estimated at $7 billion (just 2% of the global market) covering broadband and Direct-to-Home television, (accounting for two-thirds of the share), satellite imagery and navigation. Over a third of transponders used for Indian services are leased from foreign satellites and this proportion will rise as the demand grows, greatly stressing the security paradigm.


The Asian space growth story is unprecedented. Of the ten countries that have independently successfully launched a satellite into orbit, six are Asian including India, the other five being China, Israel, Japan, Iran and North Korea. While the Chinese manned the first spaceflight, in 2003, India is the first Asian country to successfully launch a Mars orbiter. Incidentally it was also the first country in the world to do so in its first attempt. Whereas In January 2007 China became the first Asian military-space power to send an anti-satellite missile into orbit, to destroy an aging Chinese Feng Yun 1C weather satellite in polar orbit, India did the same this year by shooting down its own satellite Microsat-R. However, unlike the relative lack of debris in the Indian mission the Chinese mission had an explosion that sent a wave of debris hurtling through space at more than 6 miles per second.


The Japanese space mission seems to be making rapid strides with the launch of a return mission from an asteroid. Further Japan’s space agency launched recently an experimental communications satellite designed to enable super high-speed data transmission in remote areas so essential in security missions. Though the American and the Russian Space missions are way ahead, the Asian nations especially India and China may catch up soon. On the technology front, ISRO must also plan for missions to asteroids that are an ideal bed for mineral mining.


The country needs to make giant strides in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data analytics. New Space entrepreneurship that has emerged in India with many start-ups seeking value in exploring end-to-end services in the B2B and B2C segments need regulatory clarity. The Universities and the Industry need to create an enabling ecosystem, a culture of accelerators, incubators, venture capitalists and mentors.


The Gaganyaan pride, ‘Indians in space program’ scheduled for 2022 needs a great amount of funding and perseverance. We will only grow as big as we dream, that’s why we must dream big. With a very stable and purposeful government, no challenge is insurmountable. We may be modest about our national pride, but are inordinately proud of our national modesty.

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