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Should ISRO help India’s private space players grow or focus only on its big missions?

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As ISRO basks in the glory of its successful HysIS launch, India’s first fully private satellite is still awaiting its own ride aboard a SpaceX rocket. This satellite was built ground up by the private company Exseed Space without much external assistance.

ThePrint asks: Should ISRO help India’s private space players grow or focus only on its big missions?

ISRO collaborating with private companies gives India an edge

Kris Nair
Founder of Exseed Space, first company to send a private satellite to space

India is a world leader in satellite launches – not many people know that ISRO was the global market leader in 2017. We believe India is the right place to start building the ecosystem for space activities and it drove us to start the company last year. ISRO planted the seed for the ecosystem and can now also support it. There are enough precedents for this like NASA, ESA, etc.

We believe a symbiotic approach that benefits small satellite startups, as well as ISRO, is possible. ISRO can help startups in various ways, by either supplying subsystems or allowing the use of their facilities, to lending time on ground stations, and even compliance. ISRO should also be looking to gain from such interactions, either economically or technologically.

With the many years of expertise of ISRO scientists and technological advances by them, there is much knowledge to be shared with others in the industry with a ‘co-beneficial for the nation’ mindset.

It is no secret that startups will need help from their partners because going to space is not easy. If the nation wants to be at the forefront of space exploration, they can use all the help – both private and institutional. You have to collaborate across traditional boundaries.

ISRO collaborating with private companies gives India an edge and truly democratises space exploration.

Domestic companies nurtured by ISRO may not get into international markets

Rachana Reddy
Space engineer, ex-ISRO

The development of domestic space industry and the growth of ISRO should not be looked at as a zero-sum game. Although ISRO currently has about 500 domestic vendors for its missions, it is forced to import certain optics and semiconductors, among others things, since India doesn’t have a strong base in these technologies. Therefore, nurturing companies that can produce these components would be beneficial to ISRO in the long run. It would also make sense to support companies that can take over the satellite and rocket production from ISRO, so that the space organisation can focus on core space research. However, an international market might not be guaranteed or lucrative for these domestic companies doing upstream activities given the existing barriers to entry and tough competition by incumbents.

On the bright side, the emerging earth observation (EO) and IoT connectivity applications segment is one niche area which can be exploited by the Indian private sector drawing from ISRO’s decades of experience in using space technology tools to solve problems on the ground. Moreover, with machine learning and AI being used in EO and IoT applications, it makes a lot of sense for the established Indian IT companies such as Wipro, Infosys, TCS to join the bandwagon. These companies also have the added advantage of operating from a developing country that would enable them to create services suitable to market requirements in developing countries around the world.

Alongside such a market-driven evolution of the domestic space industry, ISRO can actively encourage innovation to solve large-scale problems in the country. For instance, instituting a national level Ganga Prize towards the Clean Ganga Mission would not only bring in effective solutions but also contribute greatly towards building a strong space applications sector within the country.

India fails to realise that problem solving needs jugalbandi between private enterprise and public technology

Sharad Sharma
Investor in TeamIndus and co-founder of iSPIRT

ISRO is one of the few success stories in India, primarily because they have been tenacious at whatever they do. Their timelines for projects run into several years and they are back on their feet after inevitable failures, picking up where they left off.

We have attempted replicating this attitude and functioning in many other areas, in vain. In nuclear power, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) was set up by visionaries along the same lines as ISRO, but it hasn’t seen that level of success and we’ve lost the nuclear power game on the world stage. Space is the only success story we have.

The next logical step for ISRO is for it to create and enable a private ecosystem around it. The US has already done it: Blue Origin and SpaceX are a part of a formal programme to actively create a space industry. In 1996, there was seemingly no need for Bill Clinton to make government technology GPS dual use, now Uber is the biggest commercial user of GPS.

In India, we often fail to realise that solving societal problems is an active jugalbandi between private enterprises and public technology infrastructure. This always sets us on a back foot when it comes to solving problems of the scale faced in India, where public technology infrastructure (like India Stack) and private entrepreneurship need to be closely tied together.

This also is a fundamental debate around Aadhaar: Should it be allowed for use by the private sector too or restricted to just the government?

However, all this said, it is important to remember that solving problems or setting up ecosystems take time. Had Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said they would cure malaria in five years, it would have been a non-starter. Instead, they had a 20-year target. In India, the problem is that we chase project timelines that are closely tied with short government tenures. ISRO has been hugely successful as it has always been an exception to this, and enabling a future private space ecosystem will also have to be so.

There is a glaring absence of legislative and regulatory frameworks in India’s space sector

Bhumish Khudkhudia
Public policy professional

In this day and age, we are still reminiscing about the pioneering efforts of Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan in developing the space sector in India during the 1960s and 1970s, when we should actually be introspecting deeply about harnessing the untapped commercial potential of the space sector in India. We should also evaluate the geopolitical impact of Chinese advancement in space science and technology.

This is possible only if ISRO jettisons its inward-looking mindset and the government liberalises the space sector in India in favour of private players. ISRO must not simultaneously play the role of a regulator, running Antrix Corporation Ltd and formulating policies.

There is a glaring absence of legislative and regulatory frameworks in the space sector in India. This has compelled many Indian space entrepreneurs to register their companies in countries such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

The draft Space Activities Bill is yet to be finalised by the cabinet and introduced in Parliament.

There are space companies run by Indians who are doing stellar work such as ExSeed Space, SatSure, Satsearch and Bellatrix Aerospace. Moreover, the state government of Kerala is developing a Space Park in the form of a Knowledge City in Thiruvananthapuram.

However, on one hand, the Trump administration is envisioning Space Force to protects its space assets, and on the other hand the tiny European nation of Luxembourg is eager to reap the benefits of asteroid mining; India’s overall market share in satellite industry valued at $261 billion(comprising satellite manufacturing, launch industry, satellite services and ground equipment segment) is less than 1 per cent.

Hence, Narendra Modi’s vision of New India in 2022 will be unfulfilled if a new space India ecosystem remains underdeveloped.

Views expressed are personal.

Instead of throwing the burden on ISRO, govt should first relax policies for private satellites

Sandhya Ramesh
Associate editor, ThePrint

Building a private industry would be so beneficial to ISRO. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who’d say no to it. Private industry would lift a tremendous load off ISRO. The former chairman of ISRO, Kiran Kumar, had mentioned on several occasions that given the current ISRO workforce, the launch demands are simply too hard to meet.

In fact, a large part of ISRO’s work is already sub-contracted to private players, like traditional big space industry which offloads routine work to smaller players. ISRO has already built and launched satellites famously with the help of private players. So, there are players that already exist which service ISRO.

What would be highly beneficial to the space organisation is the rise of companies that aim to build satellites or rockets from the ground up, end-to-end. But this would need investors spending time and resources, and not really the ISRO funding it all.

SpaceX is often touted to be the ideal model for a private space player in India. But SpaceX came about as a result of a wealthy businessman who was innovative enough for NASA to sit up and take notice.

Instead of throwing the burden on ISRO to be more supportive, I would instead turn towards the government and the department of space to relax policies relating to private satellites and facilitate easy issuances of licenses. There is no transparency when it comes to the process private players need to follow to obtain licenses, using frequencies or taxing satellites. The Space Activities Bill would be most welcome in facilitating this.

By Sandhya Ramesh, associate editor at ThePrint.

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