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ewa INDIAN SPACE SECTOR To infinity & beyond: ISRO’s private foray

Jul 13, 2020

ISRO has been a powerful contender in the global space industry, but for reasons has been falling short on being at par with NASA. Until recently, ISRO only association with the private sector was for supply of equipment for space program. Now, with the government opening up to the private sector for participation in the space economy, facets are going to change for the Indian space sector. The opinion editorial analyses how the private sector can enable accelerated growth in advance R&D and space missions for ISRO.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been proving its mettle to the world year after year. In 2019 alone, ISRO accomplished a total of 13 missions at a staggeringly low cost compared to the world standards. These innovations have certainly proved that India’s space organisation is a solid contender in the space sector, but still it lacks the technical expertise, hindering it from being at par with NASA. For the longest time, ISRO has been fully dependent on different versions of two launch vehicles, the GSLV and PSLV series, which are less powered and can only launch out engines weighing less than four tons. For a perspective, the SpaceX Falcon 9 (US’ smallest rocket) can lift twice as much payload than India’s most powerful rocket, the GSLV Mark III.

While India also has a robust private sector in space, the initiatives have only been limited to working as suppliers for ISRO; none despite the government allowing FDI in the sector have taken the leap to become a SpaceX or BlueOrigin. But now, ISRO seems to be changing things. In last year’s budget, the government announced setting up of a new commercial arm under ISRO, a private entity called Newspace India, and more recently, it has allowed the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Center (IN-SPACe) programme, which will act as a regulator facilitating technology transfer from ISRO. Not that ISRO hasn’t been doing technology transfers, but these have been limited to only a few corporations. Besides, its other commercial arm Antrix — this shall now be responsible for bagging foreign contracts — has been dogged by bureaucratic hurdles. Until now, ISRO has been solely engaging with private companies and overseeing the transfer of technology. Instilling these private entities will help ISRO focus more on advanced research into interplanetary & human space flight missions. Additionally, the recent reformation to allow private sector participation in the space journey, private players can also start building and launching satellites. This move will give a boost to home-grown research & development in satellite technology and enable customising based on requirements of agencies. It opens the field to more job opportunities and international orders, since ISRO will be able to deliver more frequent launches than before. Additionally, it will also help ISRO to cater to the increasing demand for space-based applications & services in the fields ranging from weather to agriculture to transport to urban development. With revised government laws and private sector participation, ISRO can prioritise and enable accelerated growth in advanced R&D, interplanetary and human space flight mission. With IN-SPACe re-orienting itself from a supply driven model to a demand driven model, ISRO/India can play a major role in the global economic space sector.

Private participation, added with access to geospatial data for private players, will bring in immense economic progress. This also adds an impetus on the supply chain and closes in the gap between demand and supply through various trenches for the Indian space sector. This new levelled playing field, along with admittance to ISRO’s testing facility, will help in building resilience and overall capacity. It could also help in India’s future projects like the Chandrayaan 3, Gaganyaan, Aditya Li, Ni-Sar, Venus mission, etc, if implemented properly.

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