While U.S. legislates space mining, Why space is still no business in India?

The last week of November 2015 saw the U.S. President Obama sign into law ‘Asteroid Resource Property Rights’ which recognises the right of U.S. citizens to own asteroid resources they obtain and encourages the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids.[i] This potentially will act as a bouncing board for US companies to add a new dimension to the space economy which is possibly several times bigger than the current ‘earthly’ space business revenues.

Around the same time came an announcement by NASA to the private sector to “take over” Low-Earth orbit with willingness to open up LEO to terrestrial markets. It is also worthy to note that the NASA Administrator himself is making a representation to the US Commerce Department to discuss potential tax incentives for microgravity research.[ii]

While NewSpace companies in the U.S try to take advantage of such developments, space is still no business in India. Even after five decades in space exploration with recent major successes of Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan and GSLV, India has not seen the emergence of a single private sector firm that can produce end-to-end space systems or has seen a commercial operator of satellites.

The only space company worthy of mentioning is the Government of India run Antrix Corporation which does a business to the tune of $200mil a year. However, this is in a world market that is $300billion we are talking about. Why is this the state of affairs?

Firstly, policy paralyses in the space sector as any other sector. For example, satellite communications by far remains the biggest pie in the space business in the world. In a fast changing digital terrain, India’s SatCom policy dates back to 1997[iii] and has seen no substantial changes to provide a better operating environment for the private sector to do business. Therefore, there have been no single private sector venture that has been able to position themselves as a satellite operator. The same can be said about the Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP).[iv] Today, there are possibilities of obtaining fresh sub-meter satellite imagery on a smartphone (E.g. SpyMeSat) and our RSDP is not geared to take into account such changes in the terrain.

We may have failed to notice that the foundation of the space agencies has transformed over years. Space agencies of France (CNES) and U.S. (NASA) have transformed themselves into enablers for the industry and in boosting the space economy. CNES/NASA invest into cutting research whose fruits are taken up by the local industry to be commercialised, which eventually results in tax money fed back into the system. The scale at which such spinoffs are playing a role in the local industry ecosystem in India is very little and evidently needs to vision for such a change.

There is very little active engagement from Parliamentarians in the space sector considering countries such as U.S., where Senators actively engage themselves into driving home legislation that enable entrepreneurs to monetize business opportunities in the space sector (this bring investments/job/tax money to their jurisdictions). We in India are mostly limited to the Minister of State in-charge of Space make announcements during the sessions of Parliament.

There is no strong industry association in the space sector that can effectively make a case for itself with the government. This also reflects to that fact that much of the private sector is still small-scale apart from a few handful of larger suppliers such as L&T, Godrej, Walchandnagar. Therefore, an organised effort is also needed from the industry side to make a case for itself.

In the current model of operation of the space sector in India, the only headway for India to create a space economy seems to be via policy makers within Department of Space/Space Commission to take charge and showcase leadership in facilitating a new ecosystem which can facilitate achieving scale/volumes for meaningful investments by local space industry.

These changes can start from simple reforms as incubating novel space technology business supporting them with consultancy, pilot run of outsourced development of technologies by industry, setting up of a dedicated policy wing in Department of Space for timeline oriented policy making to adapt to the fast changing technology landscape and further look at issues such as creating a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) for routine development of launch vehicles on the line of European Ariane Space etc.

The other way around this may be to force changes by investments into the sector by successful entrepreneurs in the country. One can draw a parallel from the investments made in Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Elon Musk run SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. However, for such investments more than money itself, one has to look into the culture of entrepreneurship. Such enterprises need a solid decade of investments before looking at large revenues. We have to ask ourselves if our entrepreneurial culture has reached anywhere close to supporting such visionary ideas.

A recent book launched by ISRO ‘Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet’ tells lots of enriching stories of the creation of the space programme and one of them is an important story of its Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (regarded as the Father of the Space Programme) in the formation of the organisation. Taking inspiration from Sarabhai himself, we have to wonder what the visionary entrepreneur himself would done in an India which flew to the Mars on the first attempt successfully.

References

[i] “President Obama Signs Bill Recognizing Asteroid Resource Property Rights into Law,” Planetary Resources, accessed December 10, 2015, http://www.planetaryresources.com/2015/11/president-obama-signs-bill-recognizing-asteroid-resource-property-rights-into-law/.

[ii] Eric Berger, “NASA Official Warns Private Sector: We’re Moving on from Low-Earth Orbit,” Ars Technica, December 7, 2015, http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/12/nasa-official-warns-private-sector-were-moving-on-from-low-earth-orbit/.

[iii] “A Policy Framework for Satellite Communication in India,” Department of Space, accessed December 10, 2015, http://dos.gov.in/pdf/satcom-policy.pdf.

[iv] “Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP – 2011),” Department of Space, accessed July 21, 2015, http://dos.gov.in/pdf/RSDP-2011.pdf.