Some of the recent media reports project an alarming picture about the Indian space programme on its ineffectiveness to ensure industrial participation, and an idea of a possible restructuring to bring about more expansion has been floated. The public has the right to know the factual situation considering the evolution and growth of the space programme so far.
By any standards, ISRO is among the best performing government organisations which has not only mastered most sophisticated space technologies, totally indigenously, but also provided space missions in a timely manner, meeting the common man’s requirements as well as security needs. It’s the farsighted approach which has enabled India to get a front seat among the global space players. ISRO is a unique organisation, which is not only doing high-tech R&D but also developing applications for societal benefits like tele-education, tele-medicine, disaster management, agriculture, fisheries and infrastructure development. India had undertaken planetary missions to the Moon and Mars as well, not leaving out Indian constellation for navigation satellites.
All these were accomplished in a shoe-string budget. India’s annual space programme budget is slightly above $ 1 billion compared to about $3 billion of China and about $ 25 billion of the US. A lot of hue and cry is made on industry participation. Right from SLV3, ISRO’s first satellite launch vehicle, onwards, industry had shared the production responsibility. Today, cryogenic engine is manufactured by industries. Nearly 60 per cent of ISRO’s budget is spent through industry. The fact that ISRO’s manpower is stable around 17,000 over the last two decades while the number of missions grew by a factor of ten is a proof of effectiveness of industrial participation in space activities. As a next step for enabling industry to take up full system realisation, a new entity,
NSIL, was formed nearly a year back. Manufacturing of satellites, earth observation applications and navigation applications have enough scope for industry participation and opportunity for start-ups. But, large rockets are a difficult technology to master, having sensitive dual use applications and, hence, have to be closely guarded. Even in the US and other countries, secrecy and security norms are stringent in the launch vehicle sector. The Space-X is marvelled as a success story in private space launch vehicle development. It is really so. But, let’s look at history. After space shuttle failure and retirement, NASA was going rudderless on new vehicle development. Their industrial partners came up with a $ 5 billion project to provide a new launcher for manned mission. In fact, this was the opportunity Elon Musk captured on his personnel initiative.
He did that extremely well over a ten-year period at one fifth the cost projected by NASA. If you study carefully, it is the mismanagement of NASA programmes which led to the success of a private player.
It is interesting to note the similarities between Space-X and ISRO. Both have a unified system under single command and under a single-roof design/production concept. Only very small items or parts available commercially are subcontracted. This is exactly what ISRO has been following all these years. Space-X claims that this is the single factor which led to cost cutting substantially compared to the NASA model. Now, let us look at the cost comparison. Space-X had spent nearly $ 800 million as development cost and offering launch at about $11,000 per kg. In India, GSLV Mk3 is of the same class, of course without booster recovery. Still our development cost was around $ 300 million and payload delivery cost is around $ 5,000 per kg, less than half of the US competitor.
Space-X had captured nearly $ 1 billion orders. Can any Indian industry or start-up make use of this opportunity to get at least a $ 100 million business for launch even after developing a launch vehicle? Instead of crying foul all the time, industry should take up such challenges as done by Space-X. ISRO is not behind anybody else in advanced technology. In the year 2009, a Vision-2020 document was prepared. It contained the development plan for two stages to orbit, recoverable and reusable launchers, human space flight, semi-cryogenic engines development, high-bandwidth communication satellites, radar and high-resolution multi-spectral imagery etc. But the UPA-2 had put off many of these activities. It was after PM Modi took over that the ISRO’s plans were put back on track, including approval of manned space mission. Now, ISRO is roaring ahead with full steam on the newly approved plans.
This is the time in which lots of statements are made about structural changes in ISRO. Immediate question is, what for? All recognise that both Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Space have a unique structure of overall management by an empowered commission with full delegated powers. The special feature of this system is that both the commission and the department are headed by a carefully selected technocrat. This is the single reason that both are performing most efficiently. One can’t expect perfection in all respect. If there are specific deficiencies, they have to be analysed and fixed rather than breaking up the top most performer based on false claims. All the noises by a few private players and start-ups are made without understanding Indian and global scenario. Perhaps one wonders whether vested interests are trying to demotivate.
G MADHAVAN NAIR
Former chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation