Captain Kirk of USS Enterprise would be surprised to hear that space is no longer the final frontier, thanks to entrepreneurial pioneers such as Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson. In total agreement would be India’s GenNext of space visionaries, who are learning ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. From Rohan Ganapathy of Bellatrix Aerospace who wants to develop an electric propulsion system; Gadhadar Reddy of NoPo Nanotechnologies who is working on an ambitious project to get to Mars before he turns 35; to Sachin Bhamba, who is educating young minds and rooting for astro-tourism, they have helped open up a brave new world—that is teeming with possibilities of not just space travel, but also human colonies in space.
In May 2002, Musk founded SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company. He co-founded Tesla Inc, an electric vehicle and solar panel manufacturer, in 2003. In 2006, he inspired the creation of SolarCity, a solar energy services company. Musk has stated that the goals of SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity revolve around his vision to establish a human colony on Mars.
While Musk was mid-way towards working on his vision, Ootacumund’s clear, blue skies set Rohan Ganapathy thinking about space. Three years ago when just 22, Rohan along with his college mates founded Bellatrix Aerospace. In 2016, Bellatrix landed a contract from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Last year, the company won the President’s National Award for technological development with a commercial angle and the recently released 2018 Forbes India 30 Under 30 list features him and the COO of Bellatrix, Yashas Karanam.
Incubated at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, Rohan’s interest in rocketry sent him on a quest to develop an electric propulsion system instead of the traditionally used chemical system. “Chemical propulsion systems use up 60 per cent of the fuel and oxygen carried aboard the rocket affecting payloads, which means that the rocket can carry 20-40 transponders at best. But with fuel usage in electric systems being reduced to just 10 per cent, a satellite could carry as much as 108 transponders,” he explains.
With ISRO placing an order on them, the 25-year-old is cautiously optimistic. “This is unique as they are buying a technology developed by a third party. We owe a lot to senior scientists Dr B N Suresh and P S Goel as well as ex-chairman Kiran Kumar who have mentored us,” shares Rohan, who believes that space will be the next big employer by 2050.
The last few years have seen a number of private players in the space industry. ISRO exploits in space made headlines everywhere creating curiosity among the common folk. Thus far, the country’s premier space agency with almost 49 years of experience under its belt has toed a conservative line. But now with the democratisation of space, the situation has changed dramatically.
The Big Daddy of space technology is now not only encouraging start-ups and playing mentor, but has also started outsourcing a lot of work. Affirms ISRO chairman Dr K Sivan, “We are in an aggressive mode. Most of the hardware is being fabricated in the industries. Instead of working like a vendor, we want them to partner us.”
Of the $400-billion global space business, Antrix Corporation, the commercial wing of ISRO, earns about $250 million a year—making hardly a dent in the market. Big players in the space sector such as the US, Europe, China, Japan are embracing NewSpace (private companies trying to build independent space ventures) to scale up their space economies. New entrants such as the UAE and Luxembourg are also making themselves noticed. The Indian government needs to make decisions based on these
What’s also revving up the start-ups is the success of private space companies such as SpaceX, Planet Labs, Axiom Space, etc. Poster boy of New-Space, Musk, is literally changing the world, one launch at a time. Several other private players are now keen to partake of the $400-billion space business pie. Bob Richards, the CEO of Moon Express, a company looking to carry cargo to moon, quipped, “The next trillionaires will be created in space.”
India, too, has never been short of high-tech talent. Tech start-up founder Gadhadar Reddy cocked a snook at naysayers by naming his company NoPo Nanotechnologies India Pvt Ltd—because when the 30-year-old put forth the idea to produce carbon nanotubes, he was met with the same answer “not possible”, hence the acronym. How it all happened dovetails into Reddy’s ambitious plan of being able to go to Mars before he turns 35.
“I discovered that we would need bigger rockets and the government would not fund me which meant that it had to be a private rocket and these were massive in size—that meant finding a new material that was much stronger than anything out there. The search led to carbon nanotubes,” shares Reddy who founded the company in 2011. NoPo’s nanotubes are being used currently in research, with one of ISRO’s laboratories exploring their use as coating on a spacecraft.
Another new player in the space market is Bengaluru-based Aeolus Aerotech, founded by a three-member team comprising Rajaguru Nathan, his wife and a friend. “I always wanted to do something in the field of space but back then things were not so open with huge investments needed, so I took up a job, gained some experience and began to conceptualise a plan,” reveals Rajaguru.
That plan was to develop aerospace testing equipment which gained so much momentum that by 2011—roughly two-three years since it was started—it became a full-time business. Today, the business is spread across 150 research laboratories all over India. But the big break came in 2012, thanks to a business facilitator space programme in the US and managed by Kentucky Space. “Now, besides developing cube satellite components, we are the only company from India supporting research in the micro-gravity environment,” shares the 32-year-old.
For space buff Ankit Bhateja, what started off as a community on Facebook for space enthusiasts eventually led him to co-found Xovian Technologies with Raghav Sharma in 2011. “Sometime in 2013, a company in the US had organised a competition about making a CANSAT module which is a miniaturised satellite model. But the making cost of roughly $1,000 (`65,000) proved a deterrent. That’s where we stepped in. In 2014-15, we launched sounding rockets and later high altitude balloons,” recalls Ankit.
All the initial activity paid off with the company entering into a tie-up with the (Crucible of Research and Innovation) CORI lab of PES University, Bengaluru, to provide solutions in space technology and manufacturing. Ankit believes that the Start-up India campaign announced in 2015 set the ball rolling. “We were one of the 80-90 start-ups invited to the launch,” he asserts.
Space entrepreneurship is not new to Raghu Das who has many companies to his name. And yet his company in India, Aniara, is still poised for a take-off. “Aniara in Malayalam means the green room. In a sense, the company still orbits the green room, all spruced up for the show,” says Raghu wryly, and continues, “The idea was to own and operate satellites and towards that I even applied for a licence but there was no government approval forthcoming. So I was left with no other choice but to start a company outside India. With Proto Star, we launched two satellites for Asian businesses, with Aniara doing the ground work,” says the MIT Chennai alumnus who is eagerly awaiting the launch of the Nexstar satellite programme that will provide services to broadcasters in commercial telecommunication.
Right now, Raghu leases capacity from other satellite operators and promotes services across Asia, Middle East and Africa. The pioneer in space biz is not afraid of competition. “It’s all about placement and design customisation, more like a boutique hotel environment,” says the 58-year-old. At present, with one of his companies, Ramaspace, based in Luxembourg and involved in space exploration and astro-mining, it looks like the future is well sewed up.
Space enthusiast, amateur astronomer and entrepreneur Sachin Bhamba has been fulfilling a crucial role in space education. “Children observe stars, observe the moon, the eclipses, meteor showers, so it would be ironical if somebody did not teach them about it. We need to catch them young,” says the 43-year-old who started the SPACE Group way back in 2001 to popularise science and astronomy education.
It all started when Sachin felt that it was the duty of every citizen to propagate the spirit of inquiry for science. But he had no idea that planning a curriculum for schools would set into motion the domino effect.
“Once we took our services to school, we found that there were no educational aids, nobody was manufacturing them and so we began producing it. And as students needed to travel to gain hands-on technical experience (Delhi’s polluted skies were a problem), it led to astro-tourism,” says Sachin. His company does 50-odd events a year, from eclipse chasing to students discovering asteroids as
well as setting up an astro port at Alwar in Rajasthan where you can launch rockets, enjoy the sky, make your own telescope, etc.
Space analyst Gagan Agrawal has also been propagating interest in space research and education among the student community. Holding a bachelor’s degree in aerospace from the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) in Thiruvananthapuram, the 27-year-old leveraged his interest in space science and worked with organisations such as ISRO and Northern Sky Research to popularise space education among children.
“As a 14-year-old, I was fascinated by the book Cosmology written by renowned astrophysicist J V Narlikar,” shares Gagan. He launched two space education start-ups, Rocketeers in 2011 and Delta(x) in 2012. Says he, “Rocketeers was pretty simple; we just wanted to take aerospace outside classrooms and teach physics to students in 12-22 age group in the most fundamental way.” Delta(x) was motivated by a student rocket programme at IIST (in collaboration with ISRO), which inspired him to take on a concept of micro-R&D with student teams and then collate at an industrial level.
The eventual rocket launch from Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram, earned Gagan a feather in his cap—of being the youngest project scientist in Asia. He says, “Along with ISRO’s outreach programme, there are multiple start-ups conducting workshops on astronomy, replicating cube-sats, etc.”For 30-year-old Narayan Prasad, interest in space came about when a project he was involved in while pursuing a graduate degree from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bengaluru was recognised as one of the best bachelor-level theses in India by the Indian National Academy of Engineering. Then a scholarship awarded by the French government saw him studying in the European Union programme.
Since then, the Bengaluru-based Narayan has launched two start-ups—Satsearch and Dhruva Space. Says he, “At satsearch.co, we have curated 5,000+ space products with 700+ space suppliers. Our growing database puts us in a position to deploy solutions that support engineering and procurement.” Antrix, ISRO’s commercial arm, has an MoU with Satsearch, he adds.
Dhruva Space was started in 2012 with his college mate Sanjay. “Since ISRO was mostly working on larger satellites, we thought working on small satellites would be complimenting ISRO’s current developments,” he says. Dhruva Space has now partnered with Berlin Space Technologies and would hopefully be the first ‘Make in India’ deal between the Indian industry and foreign satellite manufacturer, he adds.
As humans, we have pretty much inhabited earth all around and the natural thing would be to go into space and harness the resources there. Musk’s SpaceX has laid out ambitious plans to establish a base on Mars. The first human travellers would depart in 2024, it says, where they would be able to set up a solar-powered plant that would produce propellant to return them to earth. Bon voyage, shall we say?