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TalkPoint: Does it make sense for India’s private sector to venture into space?

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As the moon-landing proposal of private space start-up TeamIndus hits a new financial roadblock, ThePrint asks:

Does it make sense for India’s private sector to venture into space?

The private sector needs to be liberalised from government monopoly in space

Subba Rao Pavuluri
CMD and Founder of Ananth Technologies Limited

Private companies can and should actively work for furthering developments in the space sector.

A company like ours has been successfully working in the realm of space for over 25 years. India has expertise and experience in all segments of space technology. Although some private Indian firms may not have a lot of experience in certain fields, but they do have expertise in abundance.

The expertise of the employees of the Indian private space sector is at par with developed countries. Given the opportunity, Indian companies can build around that expertise in others areas too.

The catch is this expertise has to be properly supported by finance, which is often uncertain when it comes to private firms.

The kind of finance that is available to the government/ISRO/Department of Space is not available to the private sector. Present policies do not allow private industry to grow on its own.

All other sectors in India were liberalised/reformed; but unfortunately the space sector has not been liberalised from government control and monopoly. This creates a sharp divide between the two sectors, causing the private sector to falter at times.

India’s private sector can’t expect a better situation to be in the space business

Vinod S Chippalkatti
Vice President, strategic electronics business unit, Centum Electronics Ltd

Space is a very technology-intensive, complex, and long gestation business. To be in the space business, one needs to possess a huge amount of expertise, patience, tenacity, and deep pockets. Once successful, this business also has capabilities to create huge entry barriers to sustain and grow.

India’s private sector cannot expect a better situation to be in the space business than now. With the increased requirements of space missions for various needs, it is a necessity that the private sector should scale up to expectations.

The fundamental requirement from an industry is to establish heritage, which can happen only over a period of time and at a certain pace before one can aim to be a major player at a system level.

With this, yes, it indeed makes sense for an Indian private player to venture into space.

However, most successful industries in the world have multiple technologies and multiple markets to address, rather than being only in space. Many times, the space business can be extremely lumpy, which is not what any private industry would prefer.

The only way to graduate from a domestic space partner to a global player is to establish credibility, which comes by gathering domain experience. Human resources in the space domain are not easily available in the market, and to a large extent, have to be home grown. This can be one of the key challenges as to why it takes a good amount of time to establish a strong foothold in the space market.

Underestimating the above factors and being overambitious for quick growth solutions are a taboo in the space industry.

For Indian private industry, space is an elite sector to be in, but success lies in mature and well-informed decision making.

ISRO itself has plans for private involvement in space, such as operating PSLV

Ratan Shrivastava 
Industry expert and consultant on defence, space & aerospace

The requirement of the Indian space industry is significantly short of the stated goals. Space exploration and the space sector provide an immense opportunity for the Indian and global industry, due to the enhanced demand for satellites and space launch vehicles (at about 18-20 satellites per year and 12 launches per year).

The key to success will be through a significant reduction of the cost of access to space, and ISRO has been instrumental in developing the space and satellite industry clusters in the country. Almost 75 per cent of the launch vehicle work is being done by the industry, with ISRO concentrating on its core activities of design, development, integration, and assembly. ISRO has plans to privatise the operations of its popular Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) by 2020 and private industry has been engaged with ISRO and ANTRIX to formulate a strategy to enhance the capacity and capability of managing the PSLV programme on an end-to-end basis. ISRO is looking to set up a joint venture to manufacture the launch vehicle itself.

The assembly, integration, and testing of IRNSS satellites in the private sector is a concrete step towards the eventual privatisation of commercial satellites, with the design, engineering and manufacturing of the components for satellites and launch vehicles already in the private sector domain.

The current issue of the delay in the launch of the TeamIndus lunar mission could be ascribed more to issues that are technical rather than financial, though TeamIndus has admitted to difficulty in raising of funds – which could be also due to the fact that  the launch is linked with the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition and the 31 March deadline, which even the Israeli team (SpaceIL) is struggling to meet.

TeamIndus indeed has a unique idea to design and build a lunar mission. But like any start-up, it requires technical expertise, mentoring, marketing, and a business model. While they may or may not be able to meet the 31 March deadline, it is hoped that they eventually will be able to launch a technically robust, functional robotic spacecraft on the Moon, that can meet the demanding and stringent quality control standards of space.

(Views are personal)

Start-ups need to be supported by govt and large industrial and tech houses

Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, AVSM VM PhD (retd),
Former deputy chief of integrated defence staff in HQ IDS, Ministry of Defence.

The news of TeamIndus aborting its plan to land a spacecraft and operate a rover on the Moon, on account of lack of funding, is an unfortunate development. It reflects the ground reality that Indian business houses and venture capitalists are averse to taking calculated risks when it comes to technology development.

A lot of talk has been on in recent years about high-tech development, in the aerospace domain in particular, in both defence and civil sectors. While ‘indigenisation’ and ‘Make in India’ are welcome initiatives, it must be realised that none of them will materialise if ventures like TeamIndus are not supported and encouraged.

There is a critical need to understand that most of the high-end technology developments will happen only in start-ups, and medium and small industries. This is particularly true in the aerospace sector. This is simply because of the passion for high technology that animates start-ups and MSMEs.

The Indian environment is right now at a stage where opportunities are increasing by the day, government policies and organisations like ISRO are encouraging private sector entry, and there is a boom in human resources — of a motivated pool of young technocrats. I am personally aware of quite a few start-up companies that are dealing with significant technological breakthroughs. They need to be encouraged and supported by the government and more importantly, the large industrial and technology houses.

This is found wanting, as the experience of TeamIndus demonstrates.

Space is a critical area for India, and our requirements are already increasing exponentially. It is difficult for ISRO to manage it alone, and rapid private sector entry is inevitable.

If the private sector has to become competent to take on such commitments, support for companies like TeamIndus is critically important. It is time ISRO plays an active role in enabling this to happen, in its own interest.

Public-private entity is the way to go in future

Jayant Damodar Patil 
Senior executive vice president – defence, Larsen & Toubro

Civilian use of aerospace is what India has developed through ISRO with a series of amazing success stories. Our space programme is looking for a scale-up through industrialisation of PSLV.

There are a lot of positives to be had for industry to be a long-term partner in the space programme. However, space is not owned by any country as its territorial assets. The international space community norms under UN resolutions are required to be honoured when thinking of space as a segment for industry to enter.

Certain norms have been thus constituted as “ways to behave” to ensure safety in space. This brings in government controls.

In India, the launch services are by ISRO, a government department, and thus the government carries risks associated with space missions, and would provide for collateral damages, if any. As a result, the space sector is reserved for the state.

This policy is under review. There are signs of liberalisation of the space sector for private participation.

Currently, a proposal to free up ISRO from routine launching activity through the creation of a separate corporate entity is under consideration. This is expected to have participation of ISRO and Indian industry in the form of a public-private entity for industrialising the PSLV launch segment. Such an entity will scale up PSLV hardware production and integrate the launch vehicle through appropriate partnerships leveraging the tiered supply chain developed by ISRO over the past three decades.

Such a model makes available ISROs technological knowledge, mission planning, knowhow, QA norms, vast past experience and skills, and would utilise industry for scale up, bring in agility and efficiency by an increased number of launches per year, to serve the ever-growing needs of India as well as harness the overseas launch market. Future investments in expanding production lines would be by the industry.

While such a corporate agency will ready the launch vehicles, government authorisation will be necessary before a launch.

You can’t just launch anything into space at any time, at your will. There are various considerations and norms that need to be accounted for, as during the launch phase, the vehicle travels across continents, and any failure can have disastrous consequences, calling for “pre-launch notification” to enable aircraft and sea-going vessels to avoid navigation within the launch trajectory.

Creating a corporate identity will also allow ISRO scientists to focus on core areas of development of technologies and newer applications in future for space exploration-related projects by leaving routine production and operation to be done by the industry.

Compiled by Deeksha Bhardwaj, Journalist at ThePrint.

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