"We are unlocking India's space potential"

With India accounting for just 3 per cent of the $360 billion global space industry, IN-SPACe could be just what the country needs to galvanise its efforts moving forward. Dr K. Sivan, ISRO chairman and secretary, department of space, spoke at length to India Today Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa on the implications and prospects of this momentous development.

With the Union government announcing the setting up of IN-SPACe -- an autonomous agency under the Department of Space to promote cooperation with the private sector -- last week, India took a giant step towards opening its national space programme to private players. Until now, the Indian Space Research Organisaton (ISRO) has had a monopoly on all space-related activity, including building rockets and satellites and launching them into orbit.

Private firms were limited to making sub-systems and assembling spacecraft, but were never permitted to own them or manage their operations. The government has now levelled the field and is creating an ecosystem for private players to augment, in a big way, the job that ISRO is doing. In order to reduce the investment burden for private players, the government is also opening up facilities that ISRO has built at huge cost. Nonetheless, it will be at least a decade before India achieves something like the US model: today, the famed NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) only plans and executes space missions -- it commissions private players to build the spacecraft and launchers to do so.

Though India has over 500 firms, big and small, involved in space activities, it will be several years before they mature enough to allow ISRO to move away from repetitive and routine space-related tasks and to focus on overseeing the development of India's space programme. With India accounting for just 3 per cent of the $360 billion global space industry, IN-SPACe could be just what the country needs to galvanise its efforts moving forward. Dr K. Sivan, ISRO chairman and secretary, department of space, spoke at length to India Today Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa on the implications and prospects of this momentous development. Excerpts:

Q. Why did the government permit the private sector to enter into space activity in such a big way through IN-SPACe -- almost at par with ISRO?

A. For two reasons. The demand for space-based applications is now increasing multifold, far more than originally envisaged, and this requirement is going to explode as we move toward the implementation of the digital India programme. The requirement will be so huge that if ISRO had to do the job alone, we would have to enhance its resources tenfold. If the private sector is ready to do the job, why not allow them to do so? Secondly, the global space economy is now worth around $360 billion, and India's contribution is merely 3 per cent of it. To maximise our potential to expand, it would be appropriate to enable the private sector to carry out space activities.

Q. What will IN-SPACe oversee?

A. Space activities require safety, security and quality, including maintaining the international space treaties that we have signed. The government is also responsible for any liability, whatever the space activity may be. We needed a mechanism that enables private players to do their job without any such concerns. So we have created a parallel vertical to ISRO, that will have its own directorates and cadre for technology, safety, security, legal services and monitoring. Private players can get permission from IN-SPACe for activities like rocket and satellite launches, like ISRO does -- in fact, they can get permission for every space activity that ISRO currently does. Also, setting up space infrastructure like launchpads and testing sites involves a huge investment. The new act we are working on will allow private players to share whatever facilities ISRO has for their jobs at a cost depending on the project.

Q. What will ISRO do now? Will it become like NASA, focusing on planning and executing missions rather than involving itself in building and launching spacecraft?

A. It will take several years for the Indian space ecosystem to mature to that level. Until then, ISRO will not only focus on new technology -- whether in satellites, rockets or applications -- but we will also continue building rockets and satellites and launching them. In addition, we will extend whatever support private players need, including access to ISRO's facilities. Our job is not going to be taken away. Instead, it will be supported and augmented in achieving the huge task ahead of us by the involvement of private industry. We will create many smaller ISROs in the private sector to do the job. Like ISRO, they will own the launchers and the satellites that they send up. They will be even allowed to do planetary explorations as ISRO is doing, whether a Moon or Mars mission.

Q. How would you avoid situations like the controversy surrounding the Devas-Antrix project?

A. To insulate ISRO from such situations, we have created a system that is totally independent, with its own rules and regulations. It will have its own chairman and directorates for various activities, whether technical, safety, legal services or security. And like ISRO, it will come under the department of space as a separate vertical.

Q. Apart from being ISRO chairman, you are also secretary at the department of space. Would you have to give up being secretary?

A. Right now, there is no such discussion. This is being set up without disturbing the other systems under the department of space.

Q. Have some of the current missions, including Chandrayaan 3 to the Moon and Gaganyaan to send up astronauts been delayed by the Covid pandemic?

A. Yes, all our major missions have been affected, including the two you mentioned. We have to wait until industries that supply us return to normal before we can determine how much the total delay would be.

Q. With regard to Chandrayaan 3, have you been able to identify the problem that led to Chandrayaan 2 not fulfilling its mission? Have you been able to correct it?

A. Yes. We had a national-level analysis and understood what went wrong and have incorporated the improvement. There was a combination of factors that led to the problem. In the final braking phase of the descent to the moon surface, one of the systems aboard Chandrayaan 2 deviated far more than the dispersion parameters we had set for it. We have what are called 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' in space. What happened then was an 'unknown unknown' error. We were not able to correct it at the time, so Chandrayaan 2 had a hard landing on the moon. Now, we have made the system more robust to take care of a wider dispersion.

Q. How is it that SpaceX, which is a recent entrant to the business, is able to rapidly develop sophisticated space capabilities like sending astronauts to the International Space Station, but ISRO, which is 50 years old, has yet to do so?

A. Our planning is done in a sequential manner and it takes a while to get approvals for our projects based on availability of resources and priorities. But once clearance is given, we do not spend much time in executing these projects. Even Gaganyaan (ISRO's first manned space mission) will be executed in a comparably short time.

Q. What is ISRO's vision for the future of India's space programme?

A. We want India to be a global space hub five years from now, and we are unlocking the potential to achieve that goal by bringing private players into the sector in a big way.