Will ISRO participate in the International Space Station?

For a while now there has been some speculation of possible Indian participation in the International Space Station. This may be an excellent method for space agencies such as NASA and ESA to reach out to ISRO. But, does this hold water? Will this be a primarily foreign policy drive from the West to India or is this to add a more prominent space faring country to the ISS to add another source of funding?

Let us assess the merit of Indian participation in the International Space Station.

While ISRO’s vision is to ‘Harness space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration’, the cost involved in the human space exploration is 10X the satellite/robotic missions. By ISRO’s own metric, would require somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 crore for the human space flight mission & therefore ISRO has decided to stick to robotic missions in exploration.

To provide a perspective on ISS, the cost of the International Space Station, including development, assembly and running costs over 10 years, comes to €100 billion, which is 100X the Annual budget of ISRO. The 2013 NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, Extending the Operational Life of the International Space Station Until 2024, shows the ISS annual operating costs at $2.9 billion (3X ISRO Annual Budget).

From a partner country perspective, let’s take the example of Japan. The annual running costs for Japanese Experiment Module will total around $350 to 400 million (almost 1/2 ISRO annual budget). Which means that if India has to participate meaningfully do some really interesting science, ISRO will need almost 50% (3500 Cr) budget increase. Although this is 1/10th of the cost of having our own manned space programme, this is also the cost of having 50 Mangalyaan missions a year!

In conclusion, from a cost vs benefit analysis for doing science or as a return on investment for foreign policy drive, going onboard as a partner to ISS fails from an Indian perspective. Therefore, ISRO as a partner to ISS is very unlikely.