A long road yet to be travelled by India’s private space sector

  • The space sector is experiencing a boom in commercial space flights and tourism following advances promoted by billionaires of developed nations.
  • The Indian space sector is lagging in the field of commercialisation of space following setbacks associated with private firms in the past.
  • Private space startups are pointing out the monopolisation of the space sector by ISRO and the lack of a proper set of policies by the Department of Space as the major cause of delay in privatisation.

The world has recently witnessed a boom in private spaceflight missions. A phenomenon known as the Race to Space has been evolving among the richest men on the planet as they undertake “joy-rides” to outer space. With tons of examples in Amazon ex CEO Jeff Bezos travelling 62 miles beyond the Earth on the New Sheperd rocket and English business magnate and owner of Virgin Group, Richard Branson following suit, the idea of commercial space flights has been gaining momentum. Elon Musk further made it official as his company SpaceX recently created history by launching the first civilian space mission called Inspiration4 comprising a crew of four untrained astronauts who orbited the sun. With such trends, the doors to space tourism for the common man have been opened and the probability of humans soon becoming a space-faring civilization have never been brighter. But amidst such rapid progress in private space sectors of developed nations, one wonders when will India, with its promising foothold in the area of space exploration allow similar opportunities.

The history of space exploration in India

One of the largest players in India’s space sector to date is the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) which is a government initiative and contributes only a meagre 2 per cent in the 440 billion dollars global industry. Hence, it is evident that the key to present-day space exploration by India currently rests at the hand of the public sector with the absence of resourceful private players in the game.

That being said, in its early days ISRO received tons of support from private industries such as Godrej and Andhra Sugars. These firms helped ISRO is launching several satellites following which in the 1980s and 1990s the organisation witnessed a bump in contracts. Many private firms began investing in ISRO and firms like Ananth Technologies started building satellite systems and subsystems while Centum Electronics manufactured electronic components for the same.

The dawn of privatisation and the scam which shook the scene

In the early 2000s, the actual process of commercialisation in the Indian space sector started with the introduction of the New Space Sector. This was with the launch of three companies, Earth2Orbit, Team Indus and Devas Multimedia. Soon ISRO began supporting the launch of foreign satellites, finding buyers n Germany, Belgium and Indonesia who secured contracts with the Indian government for using the PSLV. The polar satellite launch vehicle is a medium-lift launch vehicle designed by ISRO which helps in sending satellites to orbit. Soon, ISRO was creating waves amidst the US and Japan space sector as well with its economical satellite solutions.

Then came the scam which slowed down the pace of privatisation of space in the country. Known as the Antrix-Devas scam, this misunderstanding set back the Indian space sector’s roots in private firms by at least 10 years. Antrix Corporation Ltd is ISRO’s commercial arm which teamed up with Bangalore based private telecommunications firm, Devas Multimedia. Antrix was meant to lease on ISRO’s behalf, the S-band satellite spectrum for telecommunication services to Devas. The deal went through but after complaints of irregularities, the current UPA government of India decided to scrap the deal. The International Chamber of Commerce tribunal headquartered in Hague was involved and allegations were made that ISRO had sold its technology for cheaper.

This scam shook the scene at ISRO from which recovery was very slow. Later Antrix tried fixing a deal with TeamIndus as well which went south. TeamIndus had participated and was shortlisted among five teams in a global competition for private firms to land a rover on the moon. All five teams were awarded a starting amount of 1 million dollars and were asked to demonstrate their landing process following which the best team would stand a chance to win 30 million dollars for the project. TeamIndus teamed with Antrix but the project was cancelled with the latter stating lack of capital sources from the former.

The future and challenges for private Indian players

With major setbacks in the past, Indian private firms are proceeding cautiously with investments in the space sector. Private firms complain of monopoly by ISRO along with faulty policies which are not allowing potential startups to progress. According to experts,  amongst the two grades of space companies in the Indian economy, two-thirds are working in the downstream segment which develops applications, services and other related technologies for agricultural and demographic purposes. These include examples such as Blue Sky analytics, AgniKul, Bellatrix and so on.

The other segment is called the upstream segment which is mainly monopolised by ISRO and sends objects to space. Moreover, India also lags in the presence of a strong private player to partner with Government agencies and introduce space tourism options for example America’s  NASA has paired up with SpaceX. Partnered with a lack of proper legislation and economic clarifications on behalf of the Department of Space, India is still not ready to induct the opportunities of commercialisation space.

 

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