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LVM3 launch
As India develops new vehicles like the GSLV Mark III rocket, it also needs to take steps to make the nation’s space industry more competitive in the global market. (credit: ISRO)

Renewing India’s space vision: a necessity or luxury?


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India is one of the very few developing countries that made an early investment into space technology and has sustained it over five decades. The very nature of the beginning of the Indian space program fundamentally differs from some of its counterparts in outer space. The Indian government has typically taken a stand on utilization of outer space for civilian benefits, and development of a national space infrastructure that can independently serve the vision of facilitating the civilian benefit program. This particular stand has eventually created a vibrant space program that has indigenously developed capabilities in space, launch, and ground systems on the upstream and specific civilian programs (resource monitoring, meteorology, disaster management, etc.) on the downstream.

The inherent challenges within the Indian space program, which now has contributions by 500 industries, is that it heavily relies on orders within the country.

The success of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been unparalleled to some of its counterparts within the public sector in realizing the national goals. With decades of successful missions, the space budget in itself has seen compounding of investments by the government and to diversification of the program into navigation, interplanetary exploration, and defense communications.

Civilian program and space entrepreneurship

The typical Indian space program has revolved around the optimization of cost, schedule, and risk on returns from allocating of the resources from taxpayer money, which has led to the Indian space program’s structure to be based on a single organization within the country, creating institutions within the ecosystem to manage upstream and downstream activities together. This minimizes the risk in particular ways, with the government-driven ecosystem being able to absorb failures of particular missions, but it also gives little opportunity to scale upstream or downstream services to the domestic market or moving into the international market. This is one of the primary reasons developed spacefaring nations invest into a strong structural foundation. This is also an excellent way to avoid circulation of taxpayer money within the country and to increase the return on investment via added channels of commercial revenues in local and global markets, whose foundations are initially built up over public money investment.

Such an organizational structural foundation remains missing within the Indian space program. The inherent challenges within the Indian space program, which now has contributions by 500 industries, is that it heavily relies on orders within the country with only a handful of these industries being high up in the value chain and being able to deliver technology internationally.

With such an outlook, there are several key challenges to the current administrators of the space program. They include the commercialization of the launch systems given the strong track record of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), scaling of downstream services in geographical information systems (GIS), and development of an industry ecosystem for the development of turnkey solutions in space, among others. Given the outlook of India’s space program, with sizeable investments in development of next generation launchers, possible development of high throughput satellites (HTS) for communications, renewed efforts in space exploration, and the potential development of a human space program, the leadership within the space program needs to renew the vision of evolving an industry base. This can lead to the development of upstream and downstream activities on a turnkey basis for routine missions of remote sensing, telecommunications, navigation, launch of foreign satellites, and the development of commercial downstream applications in imagery, analytics, and more.

Since each of these activities offers unique challenges, different models of engagement may need to be developed. However, there are several models across the globe to be considered. These may range from several forms of public private partnerships (PPP) to development of flagship programs in technology transfer for turnkey solution development in local industry. There is a need for renewing specific policies on industry engagement in the civilian program, which can facilitate such a renewed effort. These may involve specific small and medium enterprises development programs with specific downstream application scaling effects, and development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for industries involved in assembly, integration, and testing of launch vehicles and satellites, among others.

The Government of India has recently recognized space as a priority sector of its “Make in India” campaign in attracting investments and facilitation of growth in key sectors of the country. However, the impetus has been provided for the sector is rather vague and provides no particular vision except the current ISRO technology transfer and capabilities.

Roadmap for defense space

The defense technology roadmap from the Department of Defence of the Government of India has published its space-based requirements in imaging and communication. These needs are currently serviced by using ISRO’s capacity and capability for building space systems. The inherent question in this roadmap is whether there should be a declared policy of active utilization of space systems for national security.1 With the recent launch of a dedicated military communications satellite for the Indian navy built by ISRO, there is further evidence of the growing need of the security forces. The core issue remains in the Government of India taking a stance on either moving towards active usage of space for defense operations in imagery, communications, and navigation among others and creating a transparent system of differentiating the civilian program and the defense program.

The encouragement of PPP models and greater participation of industry may lead to India capturing a larger portion of the international space launch market using its successful PSLV.

Such a differentiation is already available within the country with launch systems. The Government of India created separate programs in solid rocket program for missiles, although the Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV) program was operational via ISRO. This stand in differentiation of the development of launch systems and missile systems between civilian and defense programs was inevitable due to the international implications of sanctions on the defense program. One can argue that the same separation of space systems has not had enough consideration of policy makers due to the dual use capacity of satellites.

ISRO now has a fleet of satellites ranging from passive remote sensing (imaging) to active remote sensing (synthetic aperture radar), communications, navigation, and other scientific missions. In the current model, dual use of these satellites is taken into account for assistance to defense forces and operations. However, from a military operational perspective, the effectiveness of such resource sharing has a bearing on the responsiveness of the defense forces, starting from the chain of command to acquiring data to dissemination of the data to the ground on one side. Moreover, several defense-specific intelligence operations have little need to be under the mandate of the civilian space program. The case for defense space command found some traction with the creation of the Integrated Space Cell by the Ministry of Defence in 2008.2 However, the lack of clarity on defense space vision and policies have had no further bearing on a fully functional defense space operations.

The case for a renewed space vision

Some of the critical areas for consideration for a case to renew the space vision include:

Launch Systems: The encouragement of PPP models and greater participation of industry may lead to India capturing a larger portion of the international space launch market using its successful PSLV. At the same time, this should allow ISRO to focus its efforts completely on the development and operationalization of its GSLV and other advanced launch vehicles.

Spacecraft Manufacturing: The development of spacecraft on a turnkey solution basis can open up the indigenous defense market and the ability of Indian entrepreneurs to tap into it. This should allow ISRO to focus on development of advanced missions with complex payload characteristics. This would also let ISRO have a smooth transition into aspects of scientific interplanetary exploration and human spaceflight. This also offers opportunities for Indian industry to utilize its low capital and operational environment to become globally competitive in the development of satellites for the international market.

Spacecraft Operations: The case for an industry base for spacecraft operations becomes relevant once the spacecraft manufacturing and operations of spacecraft on a turnkey basis becomes completely industry driven. There is also a case for outsourcing of spacecraft operations of non-Indian satellites over the Indian subcontinent region.

Geospatial Information Systems (GIS): Although the Indian industry has grown tremendously in the information technology (IT) sector and has gained international traction within the IT services sector, the advancement of GIS usage within India has been extremely limited. There seems to be a mismatch between creating a scaling effect of using upstream resources on the downstream. A study conducted by the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) on the GIS usage and policies indicate some systemic issues.3 Further, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audit of ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) indicates a lack of downstream commercialization of data by ISRO’s commercial wing, Antrix Corporation.4

Commercial Space Missions: With the convergence of several technologies and the success of the commercial off the shelf components, there are several cases of commercial space missions currently being pursued by various enterprises for space-based data analytics and products (e.g. Skybox Imaging, Planet Labs, and Spire). An overall renewal of space vision should create an environment for such enterprising and novel services that otherwise cannot be fully pursued under a civilian services-driven program.

Trust, opportunity, transparency, and encouragement are key to bringing about systemic changes within the space ecosystem.

Establishment of a National Space Act: The Indian space program currently operates using loosely defined space policies under several heads of services, such as a Satcom Policy and a Remote Sensing Data Policy. A comprehensive national space legislation can create transparent regimes of liability and procedural aspects of engagement in activities in outer space that are market driven. This may involve several issues of allocation of frequencies for satellite operations and data policies that can aid the development of an investment and risk-taking ecosystem for entrepreneurs.

Conclusion

Whether renewing India’s space vision is considered a necessity or a luxury lies in the dynamics of the strategies that the present Government of India wants to pitch to the international community, and transparency in ISRO’s own roadmap of allowing the Indian industry to graduate to providing turnkey solutions in space, launch systems, and in facilitating scaling of downstream applications. Since the success of the space program is acknowledged internationally, there is an immense opportunity for the government to piggyback onto some of its comprehensive foreign policy efforts, attaching a pivot to the space program. There is already evidence of such a push with the agreements made with several countries in the last ten months, and in steps such as inclusion of the foreign secretary in the space commission.

Trust, opportunity, transparency, and encouragement are key to bringing about systemic changes within the space ecosystem. There is a need for leading Indian think tanks and institutions of repute to undertake systematic studies on connecting the economic, political, and technological fronts within the space sector and set forward possible recommendations for implementation by the Department of Space. The renewal of India’s space vision lies in the ability of decision makers to move the boundaries of engagement internally, creating hopes for establishment of a strong India Inc. brand in space industry globally.

Endnotes

  1. Ministry of Defence, Technology Perspective And Capability Roadmap.
  2. Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Synergies in Space: The Case for an Indian Aerospace Command, Issue Brief 59, October 2013.
  3. Mukund Rao & K R Sridhara Murthi, Perspectives For a National GI Policy (including a national GI Policy draft), National Institute of Advanced Studies, September 2012.
  4. R. Ramachandran, Sensing Deficiency, Frontline, Volume 28 - Issue 10, pp. 7–20, May, 2011.

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