A model of the proposed Bharatiya Antariksha Station or Indian Space Station

ISRO has laid an exciting roadmap for using space missions in the service of science and society. It can now nurture the nascent Indian space industry

by Narayan Prasad

The Indian space program has fired the country’s imagination and gained respect in the international community with some of its recent achievements. The list is quite long and starts with the landing close to the lunar south pole. Meanwhile, preparations for Gaganyaan—India’s first manned space mission—is on in full swing and will surely enthuse and inspire a generation of young people to take up careers in science and technology.

The moon mission was exciting not just because of the successful touchdown, but also the technological capabilities it demonstrated. The mission handled unplanned experiments such as the lander hopping from the initial touchdown point—a manoeuvre that could be essential for a future mission’s ability to re-launch from the lunar surface. The propulsion module was brought back to the Earth’s orbit from the lunar one—another capability important for the future.

All this is part of a vision to ramp up the scope of India’s space missions. S Somanath, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), recently presented a roadmap to the government. It included having an Indian space station module by 2028 and a crewed landing on the lunar surface by 2040. Also being planned are follow-up missions such as Chandrayaan 4, Mangalyaan 2, a Venus Orbiter Mission, and newer technologies and heavier launch vehicles. The idea is to increase payload capacities and get better scientific outcomes from interplanetary missions.

Outside the ambit of government-led space activities, India has witnessed a tremendous interest in space entrepreneurship—over $250 million of capital has been raised by space start-ups in the last three years. The government has responded to it by creating an Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre or IN-SPACe, an agency that would interface between ISRO and non-governmental entities.

Indian space program, which for several decades has largely been focused on civilian applications, is now looking at defence applications too. Mission DefSpace, which is being coordinated by Innovations For Defence Excellence or iDEX, has started introducing challenges aimed at encouraging the indigenous design, development and manufacture of space technologies that can serve defence needs. This initiative has served as an R&D co-investment pathway for the Indian space industry.

Jitendra Singh, the Union minister overseeing science and technology, atomic energy and space, has projected India’s space economy to grow to $40 billion by 2040 from the estimated $8 billion now.

With all these exciting developments, the country finds itself at a crossroads where several actions need to be taken for the entire ecosystem to mature and reach the ambitious goals.

One of the key challenges is how support would be given to the Indian industry to move from being vendors in providing manufacturing support to ISRO to independently building spacecraft and launching vehicles. Only such complete competence will allow the Indian industry to be a serious contender in the global market. Several start-ups are trying their best to get investments to develop technologies to have spacecraft and launch vehicles built. However, these start-ups are yet to gain momentum in the form of getting domestic contracts. Such an anchor-tenant-based support system is critical in a sovereign interest area such as space—it would help the local industry mature to have command over the intellectual property required to realise space missions.

The Indian space program has been formed on the basis of serving citizens with the necessary applications while exploiting outer space to improve quality of life. It’s now time for this charter to be renewed to include a larger focus on interplanetary, robotic and crewed missions. The government needs to support the ramp-up of capabilities in futuristic technologies and science missions including crewed ones; at the same time, it needs to come up with a clear roadmap for engaging the industry for the routine missions that are needed to serve societal applications.

A good example of this are the steps being taken in the realm of launch vehicles with the Indian industry consortium now starting to own the entire realisation of the polar satellite launch vehicle. This will hopefully help increase the number of launches India is able to conduct—from the current 6-8 a year to multiples of the numbers.

This would allow ISRO to focus on the development of new launch vehicle technologies—including vehicle reusability—to further reduce the cost of missions. This would be a very challenging thing for the Indian industry to handle by itself.

As things happen now, ISRO engages with the government to plan its missions for societal applications, which are then funded by the government. One of the templates for the government to consider is for ISRO to move into a project management role and for it to become an interface between the end user and the industry to systematically allow the Indian industry to mature.

The end users may be asked to fund such missions through ISRO’s management of these contracts. This will allow the industry to get access to local demand in spacecraft realisation. Its success at this would make the industry a serious contender for global contracts. This will also allow ISRO to then focus exclusively on science, interplanetary orbiters, robotics and crewed missions where uncertainties are much higher.

The current focus of the defence space initiative is heavily oriented towards co-funding R&D at the sub-system level. The defence ministry needs to review the space-based services it is procuring from foreign sources and come up with a plan to localise them. Small satellites that can be realised and launched by Indian companies could be a good start in indigenising services that are currently being procured internationally.

It’s a fortuitous time to be around to witness several great feats being achieved by the Indian space program. We now need to double up on this momentum to scale up globally.

Narayan Prasad, COO of SatSearch and co-founder of Spaceport Sarabhai, a think tank