On the occasion of the completion of OneWeb's Gen1 constellation, Mittal said that India stepped up to help when the Bharti group and UK-govt backed company faced serious setbacks

The Indian space agency, ISRO, carried out two launches of its largest and heaviest rocket, in record time - on October 23, 2022, and on Sunday, March 26. Both were commercial missions, where the LVM3 rocket ferried a total of 72 satellites of UK-based telecom firm OneWeb, thus earning ISRO (its commercial-arm NSIL) a total revenue of more than Rs.1,100 crore or $137 million. These two launch missions enabled OneWeb to complete its constellation comprising 618 broadband satellites in Low Earth Orbit.

Notably, these are the only commercial missions that India's heaviest launcher has performed. OneWeb Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal revealed the contribution of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in facilitating these commercial launches with ISRO, which falls under the Department of Space that is part of the prime minister's portfolio.

On the occasion of the completion of OneWeb's Gen-1 constellation, Mittal said that India stepped up to help when the Bharti group and UK-govt backed company faced serious setbacks. Recalling the tough situation, he said that the Russia-Ukraine war had led to the cancellation of six launches that were contracted with the Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS.

"The six launches were contracted and fully paid for (and after cancellation) we are struggling to get the money back. We lost 36 satellites and three dispensers (which eject the satellites into orbit) and a year's time," he said.

As per reports, after the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the Russian space agency demanded that OneWeb guarantee that their satellites won't be used for military purposes (against Russia). Added to this, Moscow's space industry had also been hit as a consequence of the war and Russia had demanded that the UK government sell its stake in OneWeb.

While OneWeb ended up cancelling the launches with the Russian agency on their Soyuz rockets, it has been unable to retrieve 36 satellites worth nearly $50 million from the Russia-operated spaceport in Kazakhstan.

"In the global commercial rocket launch industry, with Soyuz (Russian rocket) taken out, the scenario has not been easy. Only very few options are left. SpaceX gave us three rockets (despite OneWeb being a competitor to Elon Musk's Starlink) and Prime Minister Modi recognised the moment and directed the entire Indian space ecosystem to step up and give two rockets to OneWeb and that has been a gamechanger for us," Mittal said.

Referring to the two successful OneWeb launches carried out by ISRO, he said that ISRO and its commercial-arm NSIL had established themselves as serious and significant players in the global commercial launch market.

Elaborating on the opportunity that lay ahead for ISRO, Mittal said that there is a void created in the absence of workhorse launchers such as Russian Soyuz rockets, Europe Ariane-V (Retired) and the immense delays on the Ariane-VI rocket. He expressed hope that India's ISRO would take up this opportunity to become a dominant competitor to SpaceX in the launch industry.

Speaking at the post-launch televised address, ISRO Chairman Dr S Somanath also acknowledged the role of the Indian prime minister and the Indian government in offering support and making the LVM3 rockets available for commercial launches.

"It was at such a short notice that this opportunity to launch 72 OneWeb satellites came to us. We had to get ready with required approvals and the processes to enable such commercial missions", he said.

As a government-run space agency, ISRO plans its missions well in advance and builds, and allocates rockets as per the national priorities and based on advance requests from customers. In such a scenario, making rockets available at short notice for commercial missions is quite challenging.

Dr Somanath also said that the two commercial launches of LVM3 had only increased ISRO's confidence in their largest rocket, which is also meant to perform the Gaganyaan astronaut mission. He revealed that the LVM-M3 rocket that flew on Sunday, March 26 had featured the twin 'S-200' motors that are designed with increased margins and features for Gaganyaan configuration. There were many more improvements in this rocket, which are aimed towards making it human-rated (suitable and safe for carrying astronauts).