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PSLV launch
An early goal of India’s space commercialization effort is to hand over production of the PSLV rocket to private industry. (credit: ISRO)

The Indian Space Association seeks to broaden commercial interests


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At present, the Indian satellite industry is around 2% of the $360 billion global market. However, India wants to make it big. Can India do it? Does India having the technological base to make a difference? Or is India becoming overambitious and trying to punch above its own weight?

The first major technology transfer involves outsourcing the development of the PSLV. India proposes to develop a private-industry structure to conduct satellite launches fully on commercial terms.

There may not be any clear-cut answers to such questions at this point in time. However, the pattern of reforms the Indian space industry is witnessing does indicate that India is seriously and sincerely trying to make it big in the space domain. The path may not be easy, but the approach appears to be honest. The founding of the Indian Space Association (ISpA) on October 11 should be viewed as an important step in the direction of reforming the space industry.

India’s space reforms have been supported by the highest office in the country. ISpA was inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. ISpA is an industry body consisting of various stakeholders of the Indian space domain. This organization is expected to supplement the government's efforts towards making the Indian space industry a major contributor to the global space business. In his opening remarks, Modi had mentioned that, for future developments in the space domain, his government wants to play the role of an enabler for the industry. He elaborated that the government wants India’s youth to participate in the development of India’s space industry infrastructure and wants the industry to think beyond routine activities and get into the business of innovation. At the same time, India is not looking at the industry only to emerge as a profit-making venture, but also as a conduit for human development.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is one the major success stories of modern India. The various achievements of this organization have brought many laurels to the country. Today, ISRO is recognized as one of the leading space agencies in the world with an excellent track record and is famous for its frugal engineering solutions. During this time, India’s private industry has been playing a major role in the growth of ISRO. Private industry has long been involved assisting in building satellites and launch vehicles.

The research, development, innovation, and investments made by India’s private space industry so far has got very little attention.

Normally, ISRO designs the entire project and develops the systems involving critical technologies, while the major fabrication jobs are handled by the private industry. Now, in order to focus more on research and development, the main mandate of ISRO, they are planning to transfer the technology knowhow to private industry in a big way. The first major technology transfer involves outsourcing the development of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). India proposes to develop a private-industry structure to conduct satellite launches fully on commercial terms. There are many countries and private agencies in the world who are very interested today to launch their satellites on an Indian rocket because of reliability and cost factors. Apart from the satellite launch market, there are various other sectors that demand attention of private industry. These sectors include sales of satellite imagery, development of ground infrastructure, and providing commutations and navigation services.

To boost the commercial activities undertaken by ISRO and also to connect with the private space sector, the government of India established a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) agency called New Space India Limited (NSIL) on March 6, 2019. On May 15, 2020, India’s finance minister announced eight specific sectors where India is undertaking structural reforms; space is one such sector.

During the last few years more than 500 space startups have started in Indian cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad. Also, major industrial houses Tata, L&T, and a few others have entered into the business of space. Most of these industries work independently, so there is a requirement for an “interlocuter” that could act as a connector between them and with ISRO and other industries. Also, there are many foreign agencies who are interested in doing business with them.

To establish such a connector, ISpA, an industry body consisting of various stakeholders of the Indian space domain, has been constituted. There are some parallels with other Indian agencies like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). These agencies are known to look after the interests of Indian industry. ISpA is expected to exclusively take care of the interests of Indian space industry.

Many private organizations have come forward to form ISpA. The industrial houses include Bharti Airtel’s OneWeb, Tata Group’s Nelcom, L&T, MapMyIndia, Walchandnagar Industries, and Alpha Design Technologies. Other core members include Godrej, Hughes India, Ananth Technology Limited, Azista-BST Aerospace Private Limited, BEL, Centum Electronics, and Maxar India.

ISpA will be engaging with various stakeholders across the ecosystem for the formulation of an enabling policy framework to advance the vision of making India a leading commercial space hub. This agency is expected to work towards building global linkages for the Indian space industry. This would help towards bringing in critical technology and investments into the country to create more high-skilled jobs.

India has the third-highest number of billionaires in the world after the US and China. So far, there’s been very limited interest by this community in the business of space.

The research, development, innovation, and investments made by India’s private space industry so far has got very little attention. From working towards providing high-speed Internet connectivity by launching big satellite constellations to developing robots for operating on Moon to development of cryogenic engines, the private space industry is working in many fields in a very focused way. The fruition of such efforts requires assistance in fields like policy interpretation; legal assistance; relationships with agencies like ISRO, NASA, JAXA, and others; identifying the market, and interstate and intrastate industry-to-industry collaborations. It is expected that ISpA would emerge as a single means to resolve various issues.

Also, much will depend on ISRO’s approach towards engaging these new industry houses. ISRO already announced it will be making their testing facilities available for the industry. The real challenge for ISRO today is to quickly identify the non-strategic sectors for technology transfer and get going. PSLV technology transfer has been debated for the last couple of years but has yet to become a reality. It is understandable that the Covid-19 would have been the major reason for the delay of many ISRO’s programs. However, from industry’s point of view, programs like the manufacturing and production of Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) and PSLV through technology transfer mechanisms need to move forward quickly. SSLV can carry satellites weighing up to 500 kilograms to LEO was to make its first launch in 2019. Already, a private US space services provider, Spaceflight, has booked this vehicle, which is yet to be tested, for launching its customers’ spacecraft.

India is proposing to develop an additional launch pad for industry use. This job needs to finish quickly. Also, ISRO wants to outsource the end-to-end production of GSLV Mk III (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle). It is important for the Department of Space to ensure that red tape is avoided and process-related delays do not happen. Developing launch facilities, totally controlled by private industry, is not going to be an easy task. To create a professionally competent structure, various agencies need to work in tandem without cutting any corners. Agencies like ISpA could play a meaningful role as an enabler for such tasks.

Today, we have billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson making major investments in the domain of space. According to Forbes magazine in 2021, India has the third-highest number of billionaires in the world after the US and China. So far, there’s been very limited interest by this community in the business of space. Agencies like ISpA should not restrict themselves to coordinate between existing investors but should also ensure that new investors join the field. If India has to grow big, then they require major industrial houses to enter the business of space who can undertake sustained investments without worrying much about profits for at least the first few years.

The task in front of the ISpA is clearly laid out. The challenge for this new agency is to emerge as a major facilitator for the Indian space industry. They are expected to play a major role towards making India a global private space industry powerhouse.


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