NewSpace India Ltd., the Department of Space’s second commercial arm, was formed to market products and services of the Indian Space Research Organisation. NSIL’s new Chairman and Managing Director, G. Narayanan, was earlier a Deputy Director at ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Thiruvananthapuram. In the interview, Mr. Narayanan speaks about the role of the fledgling company in the Indian scene and in a competitive world space market. Edited excerpts:

NewSpace India Ltd is just about a year old and already it has you as its second chairman and managing director. How was the past year in terms of business goals met and financial performance, etc.? What were the priorities?

I have been in this place for just under a month. I came in after my predecessor here [Ms. D.R. Suma] superannuated in January. So it was a normal transition. For a young company the year has not been bad. I cannot give the financial figures yet.

Finding PSLV, SSLV makers is a top priority, says CMD of NewSpace India
NSIL’s Chairman and Managing Director, G. Narayanan.NSIL’s mandate is to work with Indian industry and create a high technology manufacturing base, especially for space activities. It must realise ISRO’s two satellite launch vehicles, the PSLV and the new SSLV [Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, due for its first launch in a couple of months], through our industry. Some progress has been made in this initiative. Last year, we invited expressions of interest [EoI] for the PSLV. Evaluation of the EoIs is in the final stage and we are preparing to issue an RFP [request for proposal].

NSIL had its customers on two recent PSLV launches. We have some inquiries. You may hear from us shortly about some of the forthcoming contracts. Getting small spacecraft and satellite communication services are other thrust areas. In the area of technology transfer we are identifying potential takers.

What are the plans for the second year?

Basically we should be building on the work done in the first year. Finding an industry partner to produce the PSLV is a major activity we look forward to in the second year. For the SSLV too, we hope to initiate production during the year, but after it makes the first couple of flights.

Starting as a very lean company, we are in the process of fresh recruitments to fill posts across areas. In a couple of months we may double our strength to 15-20 people and may expand further later.

How do you propose to push the commercial production of the PSLV and the SSLV forward?

The technology of making a PSLV is complex. Industry should have wet its hands on it while we do some hand-holding. Industry support is the major thing in this and we currently have about 100 industries supplying for the PSLV program.

The EoI is only the first step. There were 6-7 interested applicants. After the RFP, a smaller number will be shortlisted. We need just one production player — who could be a consortium of multiple partners.

The SSLV is said to be much simpler to produce than the PSLV. Eventually the SSLV will also follow the same route to production. It could be entrusted to the same or another bidder.

There is a lot of duplication in the business areas of the two commercial arms of the Department of Space — NSIL and its older sibling, Antrix Corporation. How do you both share the same work, are there discussions, where does one company get off and the other one get in? It all looks very puzzling.

I only know about NSIL’s mandate. Coming as I do from a technology background, I do not know much about the working of Antrix. I really cannot say anything about it.

Before NSIL was born, lease of transponders on communication satellites earned the bulk of revenue for the Department of Space through Antrix. How would you rank your different business areas by their revenue potential – lease of satellite capacity, marketing of launch services, etc?

It has not been so in the first year but both the areas that you mention can be our bread and butter! There is demand for launchers from both domestic and foreign operators.

In the case leasing transponders to users, the demand is from the domestic market. Our primary focus is also to meet national requirements through national capacity.

We have the launch vehicle capacity for whatever satellite transponder capacity is required. In addition, we need to have launch vehicles to meet the demands of the international market also.

Getting small spacecraft built is also a thrust area. A few industries are already operating in this area at ISITE [ISRO Satellite Integration and Testing Establishment, Bengaluru] on a turnkey basis.

How many new launch service contracts for the PSLV have been signed or are in the offing?

NSIL had its customers* on two recent PSLV launches. We have some inquiries, and those may be orders in the offing.

You may hear from us shortly about some of the forthcoming contracts.

[* Last year NSIL executed its first batch of launch service contracts. As a result, eight international customers separately hired two PSLV rockets and sent 22 satellites to space – in November and December 2019.]

Will you also market the GSLV rocket?

Marketing of the GSLV is not on our radar right now. As I understand, there are domestic requirements for GSLV and [the more powerful] GSLV-MkIII.

Back in the 1990s, communication satellite INSAT-2E was entirely leased to Intelsat. Can there be such possibilities in these times?

Right now there are no talks on those lines. But we are open and such a prospect cannot be ruled out. It all depends on when such a requirement comes up and also the availability of a satellite.

In recent years, many Indian private sector companies and start-ups have come up in your business space and they, too, are offering to innovatively make small satellites and launch vehicles, etc at low costs. How does a space PSU hold its own in this global competition and co-exist with the rest?

It would actually be a good development if a private sector player came up and became a competitor to NSIL! I would say that would be NSIL’s biggest achievement. We need not be worried about it.

As I said before, one of the mandates of NSIL is to enable Indian industries to get into high technology manufacturing, and to eventually set up a wide space industry base in the country.

Our primary goal is to facilitate indigenous production whether through a start-up, a private sector company or another PSU. We need not always be competitive but can also play complimentary roles. We will work with industry as a reliable partner.

In that case, would NSIL also push for a quick formulation of a space policy that is long awaited? Many private space players believe that the absence of a clear policy hinders their business plans.

Having a space policy is definitely a positive. But I don't think that not having one has stopped or hindered any activity from happening. ISRO has been very proactive in facilitating industry to the extent possible. Small private-built satellites like Kalamsat have been launched.

If you mean procedures, even NSIL which is a PSU must follow them if it wants to do something.

What is the big picture for NSIL in the coming years?

We are a nascent company and for me to say anything about the long term with my exposure of less than a month will be too much at this stage. Probably in the next 4-5 years, we will be in a position to speak about it.

But yes, we do want to be one of the major space players in the world and an end-to-end service provider in all space activities.

Right now, we market ISRO's spare capacities in rockets, satellites and services. In the mid to long term, we expect to start creating capacity, too, along with the industry.

What is the team needed to pursue these activities? And the rest of the board of directors and NSIL's future premises?

We started as a very lean company. Now we are in the process of fresh recruitments to fill posts across areas. In a couple of months we may double our strength and we may be 15-20 people and could even expand further depending on the needs.

We are not closed to the idea of shifting out [of the ISRO HQ] as we grow.

The interim board [including an executive director and three nominated part-time members] is full. The full-fledged [nine-member] board will take some more time to be completed, and as per PSU guidelines.