Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is all set to double the number of satellites it launches by next year. However, with the existing shortage of manpower and funds, it seems to be almost impossible. Solution? Bring in, private players. And that’s exactly what the state-owned organisation is planning to do. In 2017, ISRO announced their plans to privatise their Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) launches, which are currently operated and developed only by them.
When the United States legalised privatisation of its space sector in 2004, the nation witnessed a bunch of private players popping up. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Moon Express popped up one after the other. SpaceX successfully launched the first-ever reusable rocket. Arianespace came up with technology which reduced the cost of launches by 50%. And the list of successes goes on and on. This soon can be a reality for India too.
Here’s what commercialising the space arena could mean for India :
In India, when we say the word Space, we often associate the word with state-owned Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). That’s because, till date, they have been the only ones doing the majority of space-related activities. The reason why we have hardly exploited the budding private space industry is the absence of laws and policies that would support space entrepreneurship. This has been a roadblock for commercialisation. However, off late, by introducing new bills like the Space Activities Bill (2017) and announcing Private-Public partnership plans, the Indian government is making it easier for the private industry to enter the space arena.
Further, the global NewSpace movement has given a push to the Indian private space sector as well. NewSpace, is a global phenomenon where space entrepreneurs are developing products and services which are focused on spaceflight by using private funding. SpaceX, OneWeb and PlanetLabs are companies which fit into this bracket. They work independently to the government and often challenge the traditional space methods which are expensive and time-consuming. They are rapidly gaining popularity. For instance, at least 10,000 New Space startups are expected to kick off around the world in the next decade or so. And more companies mean more business!
NewSpace has inspired many entrepreneurs in India as well and has led to the establishment of several innovative startups like Team Indus, Earth2orbit, Astrome Technologies, SatSure etc. For instance, in 2017 the Bangalore based Team Indus launched a rover which could be landed on the Moon and beam back images and videos. Well, this invention paved the way for India’s entry into Google Lunar XPRIZE competition. According to the head of the team, Rahul Narayan, “the future of space exploration will be fuelled by private companies that dare to push the envelope“.
Dhruva Space, a Bangalore based start-up became the first in India to design and manufacture satellites. They have claimed that they have the capacity to manufacture at least 10-12 satellites annually. That’s just one success story of innovation. There are many like these in every nook of the country which could be a big helping hand for the ISRO. So, rather than being competitors, the private industry should be seen as allies to ISRO. It saves their time for bigger, challenging innovations and operations; and most important research and development. This means ideas will be pouring not just from the new industry but from ISRO as well.
This could mean India becoming the brainchild of innovative ideas and not merely importing them. Typically, India receives the technology much later than other countries. Technologies like the 4G internet, GPS, DTH, entered the Indian markets, much later than the other countries. Which might not be the case once we divert our focus to better and relevant R&D in space technologies. For instance, Susmita Mohanty, founder of Earth2Orbit (India’s first space startup)is all set to solve climate change from outer space. According to her, space plays a vital role in monitoring and understanding the effects of climate change. So, she decided to work on an Earth observation satellite, which combines big data and analytics to collect information about our planet on a global scale.
Maybe with many such projects, other nations would soon want to import our innovations and ideas and not the other way round. Now as ISRO too, plans to privatize their basic and well-established technologies, they can focus on the research and development of newer technologies and more cutting-edge missions. And leave the basic operations for the new space players.
As the space sector expands with bigger projects and missions, more people will be required to get the job done. The current strength of ISRO is around 16,000 people, which is clearly not enough to achieve the set objectives and missions planned by ISRO. Further, there have been reports of scientists not willing to work for the state-owned organisation. The traditional work culture, its reluctance to change and innovation, lack of promotions are a few reasons for the same.
Due to this human resource challenges at least 300 scientists fled ISRO in just 5 years. Results? Brain Drain. No wonder India tops the list of immigrant scientists and engineers working in the U.S. Commercialising and privatising, will bring in the much needed fresh ideas and perspective which will suit the younger generation. This will also channelize employment via the growing number of new space companies and startups. And will bring back many scientists and engineers, who flew overseas due to the lack of growth in the Indian space sector.
Finally seeing more scope and growth, youth and students interested in space technology, will see Aeronautics and Space sector as a career option. Let’s understand this with the current careers landscape. With the boom on the internet, there was a rise in demand for workforce in the social media field, software development, coding etc. Accordingly, we have niche courses and programmes for social media. That’s how it will work for the space sector as well.
According to Adithya Kothandhapani, an engineer at the Team Indus the rise in the number of private aerospace companies will result in an increase in placement opportunities in the sector. He further adds, that currently, the students in India lack general interest in the field of Aeronautics and Space. There is a lack of research-based curriculum, outdated syllabus which does not reflect the demands of the industry and lack of a candidate’s ability to apply knowledge to solve the real-world problems.
Indian scientists have contributed largely to the astronomy and the space sector globally. But, when it comes to promoting education in this sector, we are lagging far behind. At present, there are very few universities offering postgraduate courses in the field and a handful number of colleges offering undergraduate courses. More programmes in this field could pave way for more budding and young scientists and engineers.
Although commercialisation of space comes with a huge number of opportunities, it also comes with a fair share of risks. While many have welcomed this move, critics are of the opinion that the newly established startups and organizations lack experience and cannot match the quality standards of the 50-year-old state-owned establishment.