Which Way to Space……….. Will Indian NewSpace Make for India?

NewSpace has emerged in India. The innovative, imaginative and boot strapping start-ups are eager engage in space activities well beyond limits of the Department of Space (DOS) driven licensing regime for sourcing/procuring requirements and transferring about 300 validated technologies. Indian NewSpace does not aspire to challenge or rival ISRO. It senses opportunity because, despite being a long time investor in developing space technologies, no Indian company finds mention in the top ten space companies of the world. NewSpace wants to be turnkey solutions providers in products and services to users within the country and abroad. It recognizes synergy in government’s flagships programmes: Make in India and Digital India. Aware that time is of the essence, NewSpace wants to assist ISRO augment in orbit delivery of small satellites, so that India could establish presence in the lucrative international market for commercial space launches in LEO (Low Earth Orbit). It wants to design and manufacture small satellites; small integrated spacecraft that can self-propel to deploy 100-200 small satellites in orbits; develop related low cost enabled technologies for applications including communications and remote sensing. Harnessing this opportunity requires a vision and new, active rules of engagement. The Prime Minister’s approach to Electronics, IT and Biotechnology sectors lends hope for the nascent private space sector.

NewSpace refers to entrepreneurial new space companies in the US (1980-1990) which pioneered efforts to reach outer space without cooperation with NASA, other governmental agencies or their contractors. NewSpace is opposite of Old Space. “Old Space is slow, bureaucratic, government-directed, cautious and halting and completely top-down supervising every project down to the last dollar. In the US, Old Space is NASA, Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, coasting on the glory of the Apollo era and isn’t entirely sure what to do next” wrote Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post.

US NewSpace represents a global industry of private companies and entrepreneurs that primarily target commercial customers and backed by risk capital seeking a return on profit from innovative technological products or services developed in or for space. The best known include: Space X, Scaled Composites, XCOR Aerospace (space launch vehicles); Skybox Imaging (Imagery of Earth and Space ); and Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic (Space Tourism and private space flights), among others.

In fact, the world is already building a ‘NewSpace economy’ driven by widespread changes in the traditional satellite manufacturing and launch services industry. These efforts have now further expanded to meet the challenge of providing assured, high speed, low cost global connectivity and sudden infrastructure crises. Companies like Google, Virgin, and Qualcomm are investing in small satellite based communication technologies with over 10,000 satellites filed to be launched in the next five years. In the foreseeable future, low cost launch of small satellites into the LEO will remain the focus for the international satellite communications worldwide.

The Indian establishment remains shielded from these spectacular changes in the global space industry, albeit, the private sector has recognized potential. Having acquired a strategic minority stake, Sunil Bharti Mittal (Bharti Enterprises) has joined Greg Wyler (Founder OneWeb), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Dr. Paul E Jacobs (Qualcomm) and Thomas Enders (Airbus) as a founding member of OneWeb, the satellite operator which plans to provide affordable internet access to the whole world, including over the oceans and in the airspace, by launching a constellation of 648 small satellites in LEO in the next few years. The cost of satellites is under $ 0.5 million per unit making the whole constellation around $ 3.5 billion.

While India has proven low cost space access competence, ISRO must without delay multiply capacity manifold to meet expectations from a competitive and exacting international commercial market for building/launching small communications satellites in LEO, and simultaneously fulfilling timely ongoing national projects, including India’s satellite diplomacy initiative.

Actualizing time bound commitment to transform the India through digital means is the challenge. The Prime Minister, exercising direct oversight of the national space programme, will recognize that the space segment is the essential and imperative dot which must be connected into the Digital India Project, to ensure timely roll-out. NewSpace could prove seminal to the effort. It has incalculable potential to connect the entire country with low cost, high speed, assured internet access, simultaneously leap-frog India into the new space economy.

Indian NewSpace companies include: i) Team Indus (precision soft landing lunar rover) [the only Indian entity participating in the US$20 million Google Lunar X Prize mission ‘Moon 2.0’challenge 2015, with Rajiv Mody (Sasken Communication), Ajai Chowdhary (HCL) and Nandan Nilekeni among its investors], (ii) Dhruva Space (small satellite and technology); (iii) Arya Space (small launch vehicles for LEO); and (iv) Aniara (communication satellites) building new generation small Ku-band geostationary satellites.

Reinventing the present ‘Indian Space’ ecosystem seems obvious. GOI must open gateways to establish symbiotic, collaborative relationship between DOS/ISRO and Ministry of Defence. The way ahead is an unambiguous, balanced actionable programme, implemented through transparent terms of engagement between DOS/NewSpace. Also, amendments in the framework for space activities listed in Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961. Absence of rule making power in DOS is a key infirmity. Presently, DOS governs private sector engagements via guidelines, procedures and policies that do not derive from authority of law. Unsurprisingly, the mechanism collapsed after satellite communications opened to private participation in 1999. Without statutory requirement to comply, DOS procedures failed under pressure from competing interests. Comments in reports of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India and Parliament’s Standing Committee on science, technology, environment and forests, too well known to warrant repetition, hold important lessons. Clearly, success will critically depend on whether rules/ procedures, applicable to both parties, are issued under proper authority and duly notified.

Dominance in outer space is about geopolitics and power dynamics, as it is about leadership in space technology and commercial space activities. India has advantages: skilled workforce; low cost of operations; entrepreneurs engaged in new, indigenous innovations and disruptive technologies that do not depend on the current processes. ‘Space’ could be India’s third star technology vertical after IT and Biotechnology. Which way will we go?

There are several reasons why government should take an early decision to engage with NewSpace.

First, India as a long-term investor in space technology applications and infrastructure, has developed the full complement of a successful indigenous developed space programme for launch, satellite and ground systems. It is informed by protectionist philosophy and does not envisage deep private sector involvement. Thus DOS retains for itself the Assembly, Integration and Testing (AIT) function, limiting engagement with the private sector to procuring required products and services. The Indian Space Programme has endured geopolitical challenges and succeeded brilliantly because of its closely controlled management, decision making and implementation mechanism. Presently, India has two launch vehicles: the GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) and PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). However, going ahead, India must re-invent the space programme delivery wheel to free ISRO to concentrate on projects of vital national importance space including development of heavy lift launch vehicles for 4000+ kg payloads (GSLV-Mk III and LMV3), building national satellites or primary payloads and constructing a third spaceport.  This is possible if a mature technology platform like PSLV is commercialized through engagement with Indian manufacturers for turnkey solutions. It is pertinent to note that not a single India company counts among the top ten space companies in the world. India does not, as yet, count itself a member of the big boy’s commercial space launch club.

Second, ISRO is the single agency that delivers space programme, which includes projects of national importance, routine projects for building and launching satellites in LEO and for   international collaborations including delivering satellites in orbit as part of Prime Minister started engaging in ‘satellite diplomacy’ since 2014. That, even otherwise, ISRO capacity is under pressure can be read in reports of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) and Parliament’s Standing Committee on science, technology, environment and forests (Standing Committee) that have commented adversely on the failure of the administrative and regulatory mechanism related management of all aspects of the space programme, pointing out inefficiencies in utilization/ under utilization of budget allocations ; funding cuts in the revised estimate of key projects of PSLV & GSLV launch vehicles , delay in implementing projects of strategic national importance (astronomy satellite Astrosat and human space flight programme); identified technical hurdles and project delays as the reasons for India lagging behind China in many areas of space science. But, China ought not to be India’s only concern.

Third, India surely recognizes that Asia is entirely transformed. An early pioneer in developing space technology in Asia, India was followed by China and Japan (1950’s) and Israel (1960’s). Asia has the highest concentration of space powers with launch capability, including 4 major space powers (Russia, China, Japan and India) and 5 regional space powers (Israel, Iran, South Korea, North Korea and Australia). Asia also hosts at least 16 space programmes, spanning Turkey to UAE; Pakistan to Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan. Irrespective of civil or military genesis of its space programme, every country is intent on leveraging outer space into its national security architecture, to use it as a tool for pro-active diplomacy and to parachute into the lucrative international commercial space launch market. Unlike India, these countries will not spend decades developing space capability. They have the money to pole vault into acquisition of required technology platforms. A case in point is UAE. In strategic partnership with South Korea and Russia, UAE is investing US$ 5.4 bn in space infrastructure and space technology; developing indigenous space launch capability; proposes an unmanned Mars Mission in 2021; and is building a space port a Al Khaimah to capitalize on space tourism. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi is writing its national space law. India must not, indeed, cannot afford to lose this race.

Fourth, the global economic climate is creating demand to reduce expenditure, leading to new challenges and opportunities in the world’s space industry. The need to create dramatically reduced cost, more responsive systems and launchers capable of delivering to space quickly, cheaply and reliably has never been more vital.

Lastly, although the low cost of delivery gives the Indian space programme comparative advantage, even though it is almost non functional in context to competing for a share of the international commercial space market. This is because, although ISRO is principally focused on building satellites, including small satellites for national missions, including communications, remote sensing and navigation. After the initial two satellite stint, Antrix has not been contracted by an international customer for building a satellite. Furthermore, PSLV undertakes only 3-4 launches per year. It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that launch schedule uncertainty associated with PSLV could be the reason why despite a strong demand from international customers. Spurred by the Mangalyaan mission, Antrix is still unable to aggressively market the extraordinary reliable technology for space and launch systems. Commercial customers cannot afford delays and resultant financial loss.   In any event, in May 2015, the Cabinet approved continuation of PSLV for an additional fifteen operational flights culminating in 2020, expecting to generate revenue of Rs. 3090 crores. The period 2015-2020, therefore, present the perfect window to action immediately a calibrated programme to facilitate engagement with NewSpace.

Time is of essence.

Author Profile

Ranjana Kaul specializes in law of outer space and renders professional advice based on a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to international and national legal, policy and political aspects of outer space activities and its commercialization. She holds a B.A. (Bombay University); MA; Ph.D. (University of Poona); LL.B.(University of Delhi); LL.M. (Institute of Air & Space Law,  Faculty of Law, McGill University, Montreal, Canada);  Partner, Dua Associates, (Advocates & Solicitors), New Delhi, India.  She can be contacted on ranjanakaul@duaassociates.com