There is little critical debate around what the Indian space programme needs to do to stay relevant and useful to India at large.
Space exploration is a public venture in more than one sense. It has traditionally been taken up by nations and it rarely escapes public regard and reason, be it for better or for worse. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) completed its one hundredth mission last September, by launching two French satellites into a low earth orbit. While space exploration is a public venture, discussions around it in India remain limited and fall into two categories. There is an endless refrain about how a poverty-stricken country like India can spend public money on space, and there is often significant discussion around the popular scientific and technical aspects of space missions. Beyond this, there is little critical debate around what the Indian space programme needs to do to stay relevant and useful to India at large.
ISRO has made significant contributions to the Indian economy in the fields of communication, security, resource planning and disaster management; innovating during times when the nation was technologically cut off from much of the developed world. Today, India is more than competent at developing and launching satellites of various types, and is capable of doing the same for commercial purposes. ISRO is also engaging the public more directly off late, launching the geo-visualisation portal Bhuvan in 2009 and actively using social media in subsequent years. This year, the organisation provided high quality satellite imagery of the Kumbh Mela, and of the aftermath of the disaster at Kedarnath. At such a time of dynamism shown by the ISRO, it helps to ask after the challenges and opportunities that space exploration in India faces going forward.
Probably the greatest success of the ISRO has been the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has made 22 successful launches between its maiden liftoff in 1993 and today. A launch vehicle that has been continuously innovated upon, it is the mainstay of space exploration in India and has also made numerous commercial launches of foreign satellites. However, there is a popular myth associated with the PSLV that it is less expensive than comparable western or Russian launch vehicles. Traditionally, it has cost between $10,000 to $20,000 to launch a kilogram of matter into a “Low Earth Orbit” that is about 160 to 2,000 kilometres from the earth’s surface. Subsequent innovation has made it possible for certain launch vehicles to achieve this at about $5,000 per kilogram, but it is often difficult to ascertain this with certainty as figures are rarely made public, can vary and several costs can be hidden. While the Indian operational costs of launching satellites may be comparable to its foreign counterparts, there is little evidence to support the notion that it is far cheaper. Notably, when a French scientist was asked just after the 100th ISRO mission launched two French satellites, he remarked that they chose PSLV not because it was cheaper, but because the time slot available was convenient and because it was of comparable quality to other launchers.
The current competitiveness of the PSLV cannot be taken for granted. With the private company SpaceX becoming a serious player over the last few years, all bets are off. The currently operational Falcon 9 launch vehicle from SpaceX can lift over five times the payload the PSLV can and is competitive in costs. The Falcon Heavy launch vehicle that is currently under development aims to reduce launch costs to under $2,000 per kilogram to Low Earth Orbit for the first time ever. While it is heartening to see ISRO taking strides in approaching private companies for joint ventures with regards to the PSLV, process optimisation can only lead to limited gains in profitability. Not just ISRO, but all space agencies have to keep this in mind and resist the temptation to establish monopolies at home.
There are three broad things that the ISRO and Indian Department of Space can do to keep India competitive and relevant to the international efforts at space exploration. First, ISRO must aim bigger and farther, while slowly leaving commercial space flight to private agencies. A national endeavour in space exploration has to be about pushing the boundaries of science and technology, about catalysing a culture of innovation and making long-term investments that pay back manifold over years and decades. After a series of setbacks, the heavier GSLV Mark II is set for launch later in the year, and its successor the Mark III is scheduled for tests in 2014. The approved mission to Mars is also welcome, as it will test the limits of Indian innovation in managing such a long and complex orbital plan, becoming a natural successor to the Chandrayaan mission to the moon. These are significant, yet small steps and need to be recognised as such – the Mars mission hopes to place a small orbiter by 2014, a small feat compared to the NASA Curiosity rover that has been actively exploring the Martian landscape for the past two years. The former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair recently claimed that delays in getting the GSLV into active duty has already reduced the utility of the Mars mission.
Second, Indian space exploration needs grand goals that can capture public imagination, and nothing can do that better than a human spaceflight programme. Rakesh Sharma and Kalpana Chawla have inspired two generations to become engineers and scientists, and the benefits of an Indian human spaceflight programme will be both tangible and intangible. Having large, visible goals may draw more flak in the short run, but can facilitate transformation of the larger public opinion. The complexity of a challenge like human spaceflight will also demand an excellence on multiple programmes that can maintain the high ethos of organisation like ISRO, as well as make them accountable to the public and not just to the government. Like other high technology projects, space programmes have long incubation periods and require committed, consistent support and public investment. Powerful goals can help them the blunt axes of fiscal deficit reduction and other budgetary constraints. India’s estimated budget for space activities in 2013-14 is about 5,600 crore rupees, just 0.33 percent of the union government expenditure, and less than 0.06 percent of India’s GDP. If the entire department of space was scrapped today, for instance, not even a tenth of the fiscal deficit would be addressed. While this is the reality, space programmes can come under enormous pressure to reduce costs, and having visible targets can help ameliorate them.
Third, ISRO needs to accelerate its transformation to an outward-facing organisation. ISRO developed its culture of innovation in isolation, but today foreign states, international and Indian corporations are all capable and willing to partner with India. As a credible player in space, ISRO is in a position to do so on equal footing. Space and defence are two high technology sectors where having a diverse set of innovators allows for greater spinoffs that benefit the larger economy. While the United States and other countries are reducing the size of their much larger space programmes and laying off talented people in the process, India has the opportunity to absorb as many of them as possible. FDI in space is an equally attractive option that has unfortunately garnered little discussion to date. Indian commercial needs, especially of transponders for broadcasting TV channels, has been growing at a faster rate than what ISRO can provide for. This begs the question of whether commercial space technology needs to be provided by a monopoly public institution, or if some competition can be incrementally introduced.