Bengaluru: Planetary bodies, space and cosmos are part and parcel of the childhood of many of us. Building a career that allows you to work on putting stuff up in space, however, is a very different challenge.
We, in India, are not as lucky as countries such as the United States that spends possibly 50 times more money in the space sector than we do. But we are also not in a bad spot since we are one of the few developing countries that have a strong foundation in space activities and a charter to do more in outer space.
To make it very simple, there are mainly two distinct ways of entering the space sector. One is science-focussed and the other is more engineering or applications based.
The science focus leads to becoming an astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist and more recently, emerging fields such as astrobiology, astrochemistry. Essentially this track needs training in space sciences and has a focus on developing theories or using observations done through experiments on the Earth or in space to better our understanding of the universe.
The other track is one that is more engineering-focussed and applying the established knowledge in sciences into building a satellite, rockets to put objects into space or leverage assets in space to solve different challenges such as connectivity, navigation, weather prediction, among others.
In this article, we’ll focus on the latter.
The safe bet to becoming a space engineer in India
The smoothest passage to becoming a space engineer in India is perhaps entry into the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), which is an institution created by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Not all is lost even though you may not make it to IIST. The next track which is available regardless of where you do your education from is through the direct entrance into ISRO through the call for applications and the entrance tests conducted by ISRO.
There may be about 15,000 space engineers in ISRO give or take, and the number of engineers hired every year may not exceed more than 500. These two options are obviously very competitive given that our society loves the privileges and safety of a government job.
Of course, even a job in ISRO comes with its own downside. Given that you will begin as a foot soldier, you may not get projects that you dreamt about while applying and it may take decades for you to rise up the pyramid to reach levels to be able to take reasonable leadership positions. Remember that not every engineer in ISRO gets to work on designing a rocket or a spaceship that will carry the Indian astronauts.
What about getting into the private industry?
There are about 150 private companies that work in the ISRO supply chain and this may be your cup of tea if you don’t want to work in a government set up or if you were unlucky in getting an entrance into ISRO and still want to pursue a career in the space sector.
The total manpower contributing to ISRO-related activities in the private sector also may not exceed more than 20,000 people in all. There are mainly two types of private industries that work with ISRO.
One is the big corporate houses such as L&T, Godrej and TATA, which have been working with ISRO for decades on producing certain parts for rockets or satellites. The other is the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) that again provide certain services to ISRO.
The common understanding of the private sector in India is that there are better chances of climbing up the ladder more quickly depending on performance, more efficient work ethic and the lesser red-tape involved in negotiating your way into being parts of projects that allows you to be more productive.
However, unlike many other sectors, the private industry in India is fundamentally reliant on ISRO as its sole customer in the majority of the cases. Moreover, hardly any of these players have any original products or services of their own that they can sell to customers around the world. This means that you might find yourself working on a project for ISRO where you have very little room to make your own decisions since most of the design and development is done by ISRO engineers.
In other cases, you may have to embrace a nature of work that mainly deals with producing something or providing a service to ISRO on a routine basis based on the designs and manufacturing processes as needed by ISRO.
It might be especially difficult working in an SME environment since government contracts are awarded mostly on the basis of lowest bidders and one way of ensuring lower bids in government contracts is to pay people on payrolls lesser. Simply put, there are no equivalents of Boeing, Mitsubishi or Airbus in India that allow working on designing and developing full-scale satellites or rockets. Maybe over the next decade, we should hope that there will be certain companies that will emerge to design, develop, manufacture, test and fly their own satellites or rockets.
How about space start-ups?
More recently, there have been a number of space start-ups emerging out of cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. A number of these start-ups are possibly more ambitious than the established industries working in the ISRO value chain since they are attempting to build their own products independently.
This may be an exciting avenue if you want to look at working with a peer group that offers almost a clean slate and an ability to take charge of goals that are highly challenging, need leaps and bounds to succeed.
The highly exhilarating start-up environment also comes with very volatile outcomes that can turn out to be either spectacular success of going big and scaling the business globally or almost overnight sublimation of teams when things go wrong. Building start-ups in the space sector may take a much longer time to roll out a product/service, find product-market fit and typically a lot of things have to align for these young companies to shine including sufficient funding, customer adoption, policy clarity.
The downside when things do wrong is that it may be extremely difficult to find similar opportunities given the space start-ups are outliers trying to change the status quo in many cases rather than the mainstream.
In the current landscape of space activities in India, there may be about 1,000 openings available every year across the board for anyone aspiring to enter the space sector as an engineer. Hopefully with ISRO getting more funding, corporates and SMEs investing more to expand their footprint as well as start-ups maturing, this number will scale in the upcoming years.
Narayan Prasad is the host of the NewSpace India podcast, a bi-weekly talk show that exclusively discusses space activities in India.