Is India turning a blind eye to space commerce?

A week ago the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) completed its 100th orbit around the red planet,[i] marking yet another milestone for the country’s space efforts which recently made history as the first country to achieve such a feat in its maiden attempt.[ii] The success of MOM has been put to great use to create a buzz in the society with the mainstream Indian media priding on comparing the incomparable in making monetary comparisons with NASA’s Mars mission MAVEN, while the political world took to metaphors of comparing the mission costs to Hollywood movies and auto rickshaw rides.[iii]

To put things in perspective on the international front during the same week, international launch providers Ariane Space and Virgin Galactic were signed up in a historic deal to provide 21 and 39 launches respectively to a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) internet constellation company OneWeb.[iv] 21 launches for Ariane Space is essentially equivalent to India’s space budget for 1.5 years (worth $1.5 billion USD).[v] While another San Francisco Company Spire raised a second round in Venture Capital (VC) of $40 million USD.[vi] This is just the tip of the iceberg with the fast changing global commercial space opportunities for which India has remained an apathetic observer at best.

MOM is undoubtedly one of the greatest feats to be achieved via frugal engineering. However, why does frugal engineering backed by the success of an unparalleled capacity to build, launch, and operate satellites is not being used effectively within the country to possibly turn the country as a manufacturing and services hub for space missions is a question that is looming around for more than a decade. The Government of India has launched a massive global campaign called ‘Make in India’ to attract foreign companies to produce in India in which space finds itself as a priority sector. However, unlike many other sectors in Make in India, space has seen no big value proposition.

To provide some context of possibilities for space commerce, we need to recognise that India’s first space investments date back to the 60s and the country remains one of the only few countries in the elite club of nations having capabilities to perform end to end space missions indigenously. While the success of MOM has definitely provided gains for the image of the country’s low-cost engineering capability and in the foreign policy drives, analysts within the country are not only pointing to the global commercial possibilities but are warning about the inherent shortcomings of lack of timely provision of space based services for the local requirements.[vii]

India deregulated several sectors in the 90s but space still finds itself in the midst of an unsure territory between government a monopoly and a non-start of turnkey private industry participation in building and launching satellites. While there are 500 small and medium scale industries working in the space sector value chain,[viii] they remain vendors essentially as pieces within the larger puzzle and have not been actively enabled to move up the value chain to be turnkey solution providers. This not only affects the business volumes these SMEs gain with most companies clientele limited to ISRO, the Department of Space (DoS) as not drawn any moves in enabling them to not just feed off of tax payer money pumped into the space sector by the government but to do gain access in catering to global commercial product and services in the sector.

For several years ISRO has projected itself to move towards the lines of functioning similar to its international counterparts such as NASA, ESA, in mainly driving research and development and encouraging private industry to take up routine development of turnkey missions.[ix] However there has been practically no umbrella programme or government initiative in which such an ecosystem can be driven.

With five decades of experience in space, the country’s only commercially noticeable company at the global stage is the government owned Antrix Corporation (setup in 1992), which currently clocks a revenues of ~$200 million USD[x] in a global space market of ~$200 billion USD space industry.[xi] Even if the projected growth of Antrix is 15% year on[xii] (as it is for 2014) the big question is whether this position of 0.1% market revenues at the global stage for a two-decade old state run company substantiated considering India is the 4th largest investor in space sector in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parities (PPPs)?[xiii]

In a recent move the Government of India has expressed interest in divesting stakes in Antrix Corporation.[xiv] Disinvestment in Antrix Corp is inherently different from several other public companies since Antrix Corp does not have manpower, facilities to execute projects but relies on the capacity of ISRO. This capacity gap has therefore boiled down to Antrix Corp signing up launch clients for mainly spare capacity on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and with no real movement in scaling of business in development of turnkey satellites for an international clientele due to the large backlog in telecommunications satellites for the country’s own requirement. Antrix Corp is also limited in signing up complete rocket launches with the limited ISRO capacity of producing 3-4 rockets per year.

Scaling of business in Antrix Corp therefore quite literally relates to scaling of resources in ISRO to be able to deliver these additional requirements apart from the national missions, which in turn translate to ISRO requesting a larger space budget from the Government of India. Instead, the Government of India must look to strategies in creating umbrella programmes that shall enable the already present space industry to move towards achieving turnkey solution provider capability. This shall create a platform for active B2B/B2C engagement of the Indian space industry in both upstream and downstream nationally and globally.

Some of the major initiatives that the Government of India can take to overhauling the fundamental disconnect in encouraging space commerce include

  • Setting up an independent regulatory body for space which will oversee space activities and has no conflict of interest with ISRO personnel being in the body itself. In the current organisation structure the Chairman of ISRO is also the Secretary of the Department of Space and also the Chairman of the Space Commission which can all be different roles.
  • Creating an independent space think tank in India advising the Government on possible moves in supporting growth of the space sector and relevance in the international market, foreign policy, space security, etc.
  • Forming a national space legislation that extensively covers commercialisation of space on the similar lines of how several other space agencies have allowed for the growth of the private space industry.
  • Creation of a space business incubation centre with dedicated funds for technology entrepreneurs in the space sectors to potentially create a vibrant ecosystem for new generation / NewSpace entrepreneurs to utilise India as a hub for space products and services.

India needs to continuously reinvent itself in the rapidly changing world with economies interlinked and intertwined like never before to sustainably fuel its growth over the next two to three decades. Space has large scale effects on the success of campaigns such as Digital India, Make in India and can fundamentally change the perception of the society in reversing brain drain, encouraging jobs in high technology products and services, creating a third front following the Information Technology (IT) and Bio Technology (BT) success in the country.

However, the biggest question that still looms at large is ‘If India will still remain blind to these international developments and remain dysfunctional in the global stage or will the Government of India wake up revitalise the local space industry to kick-off a new chapter in the space saga of Indian space activities?’

 

References

[i] “MOM Completes 100th Orbit around Mars,” The Hindu, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/mom-completes-100th-orbit-around-mars/article7348127.ece.

[ii] “India Makes History with Successful Maiden Voyage to Mars,” The Telegraph, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/11117678/India-makes-history-with-successful-maiden-voyage-to-Mars.html.

[iii] “India’s Mangalyaan Ride Cheaper than Auto, Cost Rs 7 a Km: Modi,” The Times of India, accessed June 30, 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Indias-Mangalyaan-ride-cheaper-than-auto-cost-Rs-7-a-km-Modi/articleshow/43779945.cms.

[iv] Brian Berger and Jeff Foust, “OneWeb Just Placed What It’s Calling the Largest Commercial Launch Order in History,” Space News, accessed June 30, 2015, http://spacenews.com/oneweb-just-placed-what-its-calling-the-largest-commercial-web-order-in-history/.

[v] David Todd, “Arianespace Gets US$1.5 Billion Launch Order as OneWeb Gets Coca-Cola Backing,” Seradata, accessed June 30, 2015, http://seradata.com/SSI/2015/06/arianespace-gets-us1-5-billion-launch-order-as-oneweb-gets-coca-cola-backing/.

[vi] Connie Loizos, “Spire, Maker of Radio-Size Satellites, Tunes Into $40 Million in New Funding,” TechCrunch, accessed June 30, 2015, http://techcrunch.com/2015/06/30/spire-maker-of-bottle-size-satellites-tunes-into-40-million-in-new-funding/.

[vii] M Matheswaran, “Hot on Mars, but Short Everywhere Else,” Business Line, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/hot-on-mars-but-short-everywhere-else/article7224259.ece.

[viii] Aneesh Phadnis and Praveen Bose, “Isro Propels India Inc’s Space Ambitions,” Business Standard, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/isro-propels-india-inc-s-space-ambitions-113110500632_1.html.

[ix] “ISRO to Focus on R&D, Industries’ Space Pie to Be Scaled up,” The Hindu, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/isro-to-focus-on-rd-industries-space-pie-to-be-scaled-up/article4991988.ece.

[x] T E Narasimhan, “Antrix Expects 15% Rise in Turnover,” Business Standard, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/antrix-expects-15-rise-in-turnover-114010600414_1.html.

[xi] “State of the Satellite Industry Report,” SIA, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.sia.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/SIA_2014_SSIR.pdf.

[xii] Hari Pulakkat, “India Poised to Emerge as a Player in Global Space Business,” The Economic Times, accessed June 30, 2015, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/india-poised-to-emerge-as-a-player-in-global-space-business/articleshow/31067524.cms.

[xiii] “The Space Economy at a Glance 2014,” OECD, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/9214061e.pdf?expires=1435676554&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=E1C65E5266E3D357BBA5C43D8C9470E6.

[xiv] Dheeraj Tiwari and Deepshikha Sikarwar, “Monsoon of Unlisted PSU IPOs to Hit India Soon; 25 Companies to Sell Shares for the First Time,” Business Standard News, accessed June 30, 2015, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/markets/monsoon-of-unlisted-psu-ipos-to-hit-india-soon-25-companies-to-sell-shares-for-the-first-time/articleshow/47349392.cms.

 

Author Profile

Narayan Prasad is the curator of NewSpace India and the co-founder of Dhruva Space; a Bengaluru based new space company established in 2012 with a vision to lead the turnkey satellite development industry in India. He is an EGIDE scholar, Erasmus Mundus SpaceMaster graduate currently analysing technology, economic and policy models of India for a NewSpace revolution.

 

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