India’s space program experienced a setback last week when the GSLV F-10 rocket failed midway in its mission to place into orbit, the Earth Observation Satellite (EOS-03). The communication satellite carried by the rocket was lost as it faced a failure of the cryogenic upper stage ignition, the result of a technical anomaly

Chennai: The satellite EOS-03 was meant to have had a 10-year mission life and was launched to provide real-time imaging about natural disasters, and episodic events apart from obtaining spectral signatures for cloudburst and thunderstorm monitoring. As far as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is concerned, a lot of hope was riding on this launch, which was cancelled twice due to technical glitches.

The launch was also the national space agency’s second space mission in 2021 after it successfully blasted off the Brazilian satellite Amazonia-1 by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) earlier this year. These developments in India are taking place at an important juncture in the global space race. Over the past few months, billionaires took to the final frontier in privately funded space missions, opening up space tourism for those with the means. So now, the Indian government is also making plans to place the nation front and centre in space research. For starters, the budget allocated to space research witnessed a significant jump this fiscal. Following a deep plunge last year, the Department of Space (DOS) was allocated Rs 13,949 cr in this year’s budget, out of which Rs 8,228 cr was earmarked for capital expenditure. The net budgetary allocation is Rs 900 cr over 2019-20’s allocation and Rs 4,449 cr over the budget of 2020-21.

And Rs 700 cr has been set aside this year for the New Space India Ltd (NSIL), a public sector undertaking under the DOS, which helped execute the aforementioned PSLV-CS51 launch, which carried the Amazonia and a few other small Indian satellites. NSIL was incorporated to spearhead the privatisation of launch vehicles, technology transfer, and marketing of space products. There are high hopes for India’s manned space mission as well, the Gaganyaan, as four Indian astronauts are undergoing training on aspects of Generic Space Flight in Russia.

ISRO has lined up four launches over the next five months, while plans for the Gaganyaan’s unmanned mission (set for Dec 2021) has been put on hold. The manned space mission was initially being planned to coincide with India’s 75th anniversary of independence, in 2022. The success of these missions will elevate India’s stature in the global space research arena. What has also perked up the ears of space enthusiasts in India is how ISRO is gradually opting for the role of a facilitator, as it paves the way for the private sector to play a much bigger role in India’s second space age. This will be a sea change for ISRO which has until now served as an end-to-end provider of the nation’s space program.

The move towards privatisation is spurred by tailwinds in space programs globally. India was once known for its cost-effective solutions to complicated problems. Now, thanks to Elon Musk and his enterprise SpaceX, the investment needed to launch satellites has become competitive. Under India’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat program, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN–SPACe) is also being set up. The Centre’s objective is to unveil ISRO’s satellite data to private players and start-ups in space research, and they in turn, can use ISRO’s facilities to incept in-house technologies and innovations. As per the Economic Survey 2020-21, just 40 Indian start-ups are working with ISRO, whereas there are 120 active start-ups in the space business.

The fact that the Centre has opened up to the idea of privatising space research, a highly regulated sector, bodes well for India in the long run. Armed with our knack for offering low-cost solutions, outer space might be the limit for India’s brightest, who have the opportunity to reshape our space narrative in the years to come.