With the launch of India’s third lunar mission, on July 14, all eyes are set on the Satish Dhawan Space Centre located in Sriharikota. Through this new mission, the Indian Space Research Organisation aimed to land a rover on the surface of the Moon, which it failed to do in its previous attempt in 2019. With two successful back-to-back space missions to the Moon and now the sun, Chandrayaan 3 and Aditya -L1, respectively. India is eyeing the lion’s share of the space economy in the near future. Currently, India accounts for 2 per cent of the global space economy, which is close to USD 447 billion in 2020, far behind the major players, China and the US.
The success of India’s Chandrayaan 3 mission has not only proved India’s growing space capability but also underlined its characteristic feature, the surprisingly low costs. The world paid attention to India’s budget-friendly space missions. When in 2014, the Prime Minister drew a dramatic comparison. He compared India’s Mars mission Mangalyaan, which cost 74 million dollars, less than the cost of the movie ‘Gravity’, which cost around 100 million dollars. NASA’s similar Mars mission, Maven, cost nearly ten times more. The frugality of India’s space odyssey has become the talk of the world. A picture went viral on the internet of an ISRO official carrying rocket cones to the launch site on a bicycle. They might not be using bicycles anymore, but the culture of frugality still stays. This culture was started by Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of ISRO and father of India’s space programmes, who started off with a lab in his tiny outhouse.
When ISRO was first set up, the Mars or Moon mission was not its objective; its objective was directly linked to the benefit of society. With clear objectives and economically testing times for India, ISRO’s leaders developed a style that produced maximum benefits with minimum efforts. India has mostly suffered paucity since 1947, so the cost of production was always in check, unlike NASA, which spent extravagantly on lavishness.
The projections on India’s space budget are set to change because of the two big recent launches and preparations in place for the trial launch of India’s first human spaceflight, Gaganyaan, by early October. While domestic projections are that India’s current 8 billion USD space economy will reach 40 million USD by 2040, suggests a global consultancy firm which provides insights into industry performance, recently projected that the Indian space economy could even touch up to 100 billion USD by 2040 on the back of expanding space budget.
India’s present space budget is nearly 1.93 billion USD a year, a very small fraction compared to the US and China. “The soaring reputation of the Indian space agency, ISRO, expanding budgets, rising private participation and start-up boom will take the space economy to great heights. We have grown four start-ups in 2019 to over 150 today. Our satellite launching facilities are being hired by countries across the world,” Department of Space officials said. They attributed the rising confidence in Indian space capacities to the phenomenal pace at which ISRO is successfully launching tough missions. Awe around the successful landing of India’s Chandrayaan 3 on the unexplored lunar South pole has not died yet, and the historic mission has been able to figure in bilaterals between the Prime Minister and heads of the G20 Summit in Delhi on September 9 and 10.
The Chandrayaan 3 success is critical considering the US Apollo Mission in 1972, which had found the Moon to be dry, but water was later estimated on the lunar surface. The latest budget for 2023-24 presented by the Finance Minister allocated Rs 12, 543 crore for the Department of Space under which ISRO operates. While the budgetary allocation for this fiscal has declined slightly, the funding for the space department has seen a significant rise in the last six years. As India plans big space projects like the Gaganyaan mission in the coming years, the allocation of budget has become more important for the funding of ISRO projects.
When it comes to funding India’s space missions, the efficient costs of ISRO projects, which were lower than famous movies, have managed to grab headlines repeatedly. In 2020, the Government- dominated space sector opened for private participation through reforms. New Space India Limited (NSIL), a PSU, is allowed to own the operational launch vehicles and space assets of ISRO. The supply-based model changed to demand- driven with NSIL aggregating user requirements and obtaining commitments. Creation of an independent nodal agency under the Department of Space, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre, to promote, regulate space activities by non- Government activities. Liberalisation of traditional satellite communication and remote sensing sectors enables industries to take- up end-to-end activities in these domains.
When the Government budget for the space programme is low, and the country struggles to spend even on basic needs, its scientists have to take risks. ISRO has taken several calculated risks, and many have paid off. In 1981, for example, when India launched its first satellite called APPLE, ISRO used a motor from its untested SLV rocket. This rocket had only one launch and that had failed before APPLE went up. But the adaptation was successful. In space engineering, where conditions are tough and the cost of failure is high, it is not easy to adapt technology. It also involves more risk, but ISRO has been willing to take and manage those risks. ISRO knows the optimum utilisation of resources. There has been evidence where ISRO tests things half the times the Americans do. They scrutinise every parameter and optimise the tests. This may be called a risk- but ISRO has been successful with it so far. More than 30per cent of the subsystems that went into Chandrayaan 1 were used by ISRO in other operations. Optimising tests on equipment and procedures helped ISRO save a lot. Moreover, ISRO has lighter payloads and heavier, slower, and less powerful rockets than the US and Russia space agencies. Russia’s Luna, which failed to soft-land on the Moon a few days ago, took nearly one-fourth of the time to reach the Moon India’s Chandrayaan 3 took. India has traditionally not spent too much money on its space programme. Even today, when the Government has aimed to make India a space power, India’s space spending as the share of its GDP is relatively low. The US spends 0.28per cent of its GDP, Russia is second at 0.15per cent while India is seventh in the world at 0.4per cent.
The number of start-ups starting operations in the space sector has touched an all-time high, with strong growth seen in the last few years. Commenting on the rising number of start-ups, Union Minister Dr Jitendra Singh said at an event held recently that India has gained a strong footing in the space sector, and the world is now recognising India’s potential. He also termed the emerging role of the private sector as pivotal to India’s space economy. This will make India’s space sector more competitive.
India’s low-cost manufacturing plays to the advantage of ISRO. Over time, ISRO has reduced imports and tried to indigenise critical components as much as possible. Reducing dependence on imports translates into cost advantage. Participation of local industries in ISRO’s projects for designing, manufacturing and testing critical components and systems is well-known. L and T, Godrej Aerospace, Tata Consulting Engineers Limited, Mishra Dhatu Nigam and BHEL have supplied critical components for Chandrayaan 3 at a fraction of the cost of imported components. Since local manufacturing costs far less than imports and these manufacturers make a range of critical components, systems and subsystems, indigenisation is a big factor in keeping costs low. As the role of India’s private industry, especially industry in the space sector, grows, India’s cost advantage will sharpen further.
The spacecraft carried scientific equipment from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria, apart from five Indian instruments. Its scientific goals included the study of the chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon. This campaign has been instrumental in developing our understanding of the Moon. It can be believed that after the USA, Russia and China, India has now become a major player in the world’s space programme. India’s space programs are generally admired around the world, but despite this, some people in India and abroad criticise the space program, saying that India is a poor country and cannot afford the ‘luxuries’ of such programmes. They say that instead of spending on space programs, we should rather provide facilities for the poor in the country. Some people also say that instead of spending on space programs, it would be better if more is spent on the security of our country. Space missions have been run at huge costs in the world, but the budget of India’s space programs is an example of the world. The budget of Chandrayaann 3 is only 615 crore rupees. The speciality of India’s space program is that ISRO partners with the world using the country’s technology. After the success of Chandrayaan 3, there is going to be a significant change in the attitude of the world towards India. The economy with which India’s program operates has taken the world by surprise. Elon Musk, a top billionaire running one of the world’s largest space programs, has praised India’s space program.
The interesting thing is that we have landed Chandrayaan on the Moon at a cost less than what it would cost to build a 20-kilometer highway of four lanes in India. The secret of ISRO’s success and its low cost since the down-to-earth scientists remain eager to keep budgets on a light leash. Anyone who has taken a peep into the mission control at the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota would have been struck by the simplicity of ISRO scientists. The unassuming ISRO scientists won’t be averse to working on tight budgets and doing overtime. They must be accustomed to looking for ways to cut costs wherever possible or use their skills to find cheaper workarounds. ISRO’s surprisingly low costs are also attributed to the low salaries of these scientists. Nair told PTI that the scientists at the space agency have achieved this milestone by getting a salary of one-fifth of the scientists in the developed world. He said there are no millionaires among ISRO’s scientists, and they always live a very normal and subdued life. ISRO’s lower costs give India an edge in the global launch industry. India is aiming to increase its share of the global satellite launch market by fivefold within the next decade. The Government’s efforts to privatise part of its space programs by opening bids to build its small satellite launch rocket has attracted the initial interest of 20 companies, Reuters has reported. While India can’t compete with American private players like Space X, India’s low cost will certainly help it compete with Russia and China, who are ahead of India in launches. By launching the satellites of our country and other countries, the revenue made by ISRO is much more than that. It is believed that the entry of Indian private companies into the space market will further competition and reduce costs further. ISRO has already started making efforts in this regard. It can be believed that shortly, India will be able to register its presence in the world’s space market due to its efficiency, accuracy and low costs. This will be the first step towards India becoming the superpower of the world. ISRO would not be dependent solely on Government funding and would be able to spend more in the future. But the money would mean ISRO will chart out farther frontiers for itself and not that ISRO will lose its cost advantage. The culture of frugality that Sarabhai established has come to be too deeply ingrained in ISRO to be erased.