Indian private sector in space
The Union Cabinet, in a significant decision on June 24, 2020, decided to open India's entire space sector for participation by private industries. This is an important move that will change and mould India's space sector in the future.
For the private sector in India, the firmament is opening up. Private industries from now on can build rockets, fabricate satellites, utilise the rockets to put satellites into orbit, set up ground stations, and sell the data from the satellites for a hefty fee. The industry can do all this from end-to-end. Until now, the contribution of about 800 industries across the country was limited to their producing components and sub-systems for the launch vehicles and satellites built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
ISRO Chairman Dr K. Sivan squelched speculation that the entry of the private sector into the country's space programme would "reduce" the importance of ISRO, the country's space monolith. "ISRO's activities will not be reduced", he asserted, in a speech telecast on June 25. "ISRO will continue to carry out advanced research and development activity, concentrate on human space flight programme, science missions and planetary missions," he explained. In a video press conference he addressed from Bengaluru on June 27, 2020, Dr Sivan elaborated that ISRO would focus on "advanced technology development, new capacity-building, new rockets for bigger and advanced satellites and indigenisation of technology." He added, "ISRO will continue its work. The private players will have a lot to do in meeting the requirements of the public." In other words, the private industry could concentrate on building and launching satellites for societal needs in communication, forecasting weather, remote sensing, cartography, navigation and so on.
Sivan, who has been a bold proponent of the private sector playing a large role in India's space programme, refuted arguments that the entry of private players into the country's space programme was tantamount to the privatisation of ISRO. "It is not privatisation. It is creating a parallel system", he argued. Just as private players could build a factory for manufacturing television sets, he said, they could "similarly build factories for making rockets and satellites, and they can launch them" now.
The Union Cabinet, in a significant decision on June 24, 2020, decided to open the country's entire space sector for participation by private industries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, "The Union Cabinet's approval for reforms in the space sector is yet another step towards making our nation self-reliant and technologically advanced. The reforms will boost private sector participation as well."
The reform trajectory continues.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 24, 2020
The Union Cabinet’s approval to reforms in the space sector is yet another step towards making our nation self-reliant and technologically advanced. The reforms will boost private sector participation as well. https://t.co/oqYZFt3Pr4
To enable private industries to take part in building rockets and satellites, setting up ground stations and launching the satellites, the Union Government will soon set up an organisation called Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe). It will come under the Department of Space (DoS). The Union Minister of State for Space and Atomic Energy, Jitendra Singh, said, "The new board [IN-SPACe] will provide a level-playing field to private companies to use India's space infrastructure and it will also hand-hold, promote and guide the private industry in space activities through encouraging policies and a friendly regulatory environment."
About a year ago, the Centre had set up another organisation called New Space India Limited (NSIL) to enable a consortium of private industries to build launch vehicles and satellites, set up ground stations and render space-based services. NSIL would especially focus on enabling the private enterprise in building from end-to-end ISRO's highly rated workhorse called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
Sivan called the setting up of IN-SPACe and NSIL "a major reform to enable the private sector to carry out end-to-end activities" in India's space programme. He added, "With the Prime Minister's vision, we will make all efforts to transit into a new era to enable our industries to play a significant role in the space field." To enable these reforms to happen, a mechanism was needed and hence the setting up of In-SPACe. "This is a new eco-system we are creating", he said.
IN-SPACe will be an autonomous, nodal agency under the DoS. It will be another vertical like ISRO under the DoS. Whoever wants to build a rocket or satellite, erect ground stations, including antennae, or put satellites into orbit using their rockets, can apply to IN-SPACe for permission. IN-SPACe will have directorates related to the promotion of technological activities, safety, security, and quality. These directorates will process the applications, assess their merits and give the private entrepreneurs the licence to build launch vehicles, fabricate satellites, and more. IN-SPACe will act as a nodal agency to allow the private sector to take part in space endeavours. In this, ISRO would allow the private players to use its facilities and infrastructure. Technocrats and not bureaucrats will head both IN-SPACe and NSIL.
What compelled the Centre to go for these far-reaching initiatives was that while the global space economy stood at $360 billion, India's contribution was a meagre three per cent. To enable India to have a larger piece of the global space economy pie, India's space activities should increase manifold, the ISRO Chairman said. This could be done only by allowing the private industries in India to play a much bigger role in space missions. Besides, space-based activities would explode when the country moves into the Digital India initiative. The assessment was that ISRO alone would not be able to meet this demand, which would grow exponentially. "When private players are ready to do the job [to meet the burgeoning demand], why not make use of them?" asked Dr Sivan.
In fact, it is the widely-respected and quietly efficient Dr A.S. Kiran Kumar, when he was ISRO Chairman from January 2015 to January 2018, who first suggested the idea of private players being allowed to build India's trusty PSLVs.
When this writer contacted him, Dr Kiran Kumar had no hesitation in supporting the initiative to bring private industries into India's space programme in a big way. At present, about 800 industries are involved in helping ISRO to realise its launch vehicles and satellites. That is, these private enterprises make the components and sub-systems for ISRO's rockets and satellites. The industries contribute in a significant way to help ISRO realise the launch vehicles. They include Godrej, Walchandnagar, L & T, and MTAR. They make Vikas liquid engines for the PSLV missions and cryogenic engines for the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs), mechanical parts, nose cones, propellant tank parts, nozzles and so on. There are other companies which have started developing launch vehicles end-to-end. According to the former Chairman, a team in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras is working on semi-cryogenic engines and it has developed 3-D prints of the engine.
Dr Kiran Kumar said: "So there is a lot of work going on in the country in the private sector. Given the right opportunity and support, private players should be able to develop and get a portion of the space pie." ISRO has limited manpower. Dr Kiran Kumar added, "Right now, we need more launches for both commercial and our own requirements. This can happen only when the industries contribute in a bigger way."
Dr M. Annadurai, the former Director of U.R. Rao Satellite Centre, ISRO, Bengaluru, was equally clear that ISRO, with its existing manpower, would not be able to deliver on the international and national requirements in the space sector. In terms of communication, remote sensing, earth observation and meteorological satellites, India has to build more and more satellites to meet national and international requirements. Dr Annadurai, a veteran builder of various kinds of satellites, said: "A good amount of countries are entering the space field and they look up to (us) as an attractive proposition for launching their satellites. Our launch costs are economically priced and our launches are successful. We are a model for making satellites for successful applications."
With ISRO's existing manpower of 17,000 employees, India would not be able to meet the launch and satellite requirements from other countries, argued Dr Annadurai, who was Project Director of Chandayaan-1, India's first successful mission to the moon. He feared that if private industries were not allowed to build rockets and satellites, and put the satellites into orbit, ISRO's "R and D will get affected." ISRO has enough infrastructure and facilities to enable the private enterprise to build rockets and satellites.
Dr Annadurai said, "We are in a situation where, to focus on R & D and in the space sector and to meet the launch requirements within a proper time-frame and in a competitive way, we have to bring in the private industries very aggressively and with due encouragement. The required eco-system for the same has already been built up over the years. So this is the right time for India to open its space sector to the private industry."
About 100 private industries are already contributing to ISRO in building communication, navigation, weather-forecasting and small satellites. These enterprises fabricate components, electronic sub-systems, telecommand packages, telemetry parts packages, the harness required for satellites' integration, components for solar panel deployment mechanism in satellites, hundreds of direct current-direct current (DC-DC) packages and even on-board computer systems. These industries include Ananth Technologies, Centum Electronics Limited, Data Pattern, L & T, Alpha Industries, Tata Power Systems and more.
Stage by stage, the private sector's contribution to building the satellites went up. They are now fully assembling the satellites themselves. Three teams of industries fully assembled and integrated the last three satellites of the fleet of seven Indian Regional Navigation Satellites System (IRNSS) at the U.R. Rao Satellite Centre.
A statement issued by U.R. Rao Satellite Centre on July 18, 2018, said, "URRSC-ISRO has inked pacts for the outsourcing of spacecraft assembly, integration and testing (AIT) activities with multiple vendors, namely, Alpha Design Technologies Private Limited, Bengaluru, Bharat Electronics Limited, Bengaluru; and Tata Advanced Systems, Hyderabad."
Dr Annadurai explained how it happened: "Tenders were there. We selected three teams. They were a consortium of industries headed by Alpha Design Technologies; BEL; and Tata Advanced Systems. These three teams were given one IRNSS satellite and a communications satellite each to assemble and integrate. Components were given to them and they had to integrate them into satellites. They were integrated using ISRO facilities."
He suggested that the infrastructure at the space park, that is, ISRO Satellite Integration and Test Establishment (ISITE) at Marathahalli, Bengaluru, could be exclusively allotted to private industries in integrating satellites.
"We thus have an eco-system along with the industry for the end-to-end production of satellites in a ready-to-launch mode", Dr Annadurai said.
Dr Kiran Kumar also mentioned how these three teams worked in the U.R. Rao Satellite Centre and ISITE for the “complete assembly and integration" of three IRNSS satellites. He described these as "step-by-step activities" which would ultimately enable the private industry to work independently in the space sector.
The contribution of private industries in building ISRO's launch vehicles such as PSLV and GSLV-MkII and GSLV-MkIII has been substantial. For instance, Godrej fabricates the Vikas engines and the cryogenic engines for the PSLVs and the GSLVs respectively. Walchandnagar Industries and L & T produce the motor casings. Another "big fish", as Dr Sivan described it, MTAR, Hyderabad, is producing the control components for the engines. MIDHANI comes up with maraging steel. Bharat Forge and Bay Forge do the forgings for rockets. HAL makes the aluminium light alloy structures, core-based shroud, propellant tanks for the engines, payload fairings (heat shields), inter-stage structures and so on. Sri Venkateswara Mechanical, Electrical and Engineering Industry, near Hyderabad, makes the strap-on motor casings.
In a perceptive observation, Dr Sivan, a passionate votary of ISRO-industry collaboration, had noted that the industry could produce launch vehicles or satellites "100 per cent" only "when the entire technology is transferred to it with proper documentation." He said 85 per cent of the cost of ISRO's launch vehicles went to the industry for the supply of components such as engines, motor casings, heat shields, propellant tanks, nose cones, nozzles etc.. He told this writer in August 2018, "Out of the government's recent approval of Rs.10,400 crore for 30 PSLVs and 10 GSLV-MkIIIs, nearly 85 per cent, Rs.9,000 crore, will be with the industry only. It will be a big bonus for the industry." With obvious foreknowledge of what was to come, he added, "Industry has to come up with new ideas as to how it will meet the large demand for spacecraft as well as launch vehicles."
He emphasised again, "In every launch, in every vehicle of ISRO, 85 per cent of the cost of the vehicle is lying with the industry, mainly on materials and manufacturing cost." (Frontline, August 29, 2018).
Dr A. Sivathanu Pillai, one of the key architects who developed India's supersonic cruise missile called BrahMos, called it "a good idea" and "a policy" to allow the private industries to build rockets, satellites and ground stations end-to-end. "This is just a preliminary step. It will take time to come to shape," he said. An important factor in private players' calculus would be the returns for the investments made. Besides, the private industries have to "absorb the complete technology." They are now fabricating only components, that is, the hardware for ISRO for which ISRO gave them the drawings. "However, from now on, the industry will have to do complete systems. So various industries will think about forming consortiums to do these full integrations", said Dr Sivathanu Pillai, who retired as Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, BrahMos Aerospace Private Limited.
An important voice of dissent has been that of Mr G. Madhavan Nair, former ISRO Chairman. In an informed article titled, "What for space programme restructuring?" which he wrote for New Sunday Express dated June 21, 2020, he said recent media reports had projected "an alarming picture about the Indian space programme on its effectiveness to ensure industrial participation, and an idea of a possible restructuring to bring about more expansion has been floated."
In Mr Madhavan Nair's assessment, "ISRO is a unique organisation which is not only doing high-tech R & D but also developing applications such as tele-education, telemedicine, disaster management, agriculture, fisheries and infrastructure development. India had undertaken planetary missions to the Moon and Mars as well, not leaving out Indian constellation for navigation satellites. All this was accomplished on a shoe-string budget. India's annual space programme budget is slightly above $1 billion compared to about $3 billion of China and about $25 billion of the US."
Given this background, what surprised him was that "a lot of hue and cry is made on industry participation." He pointed out that the industry had taken part in the production responsibility in the SLV-3s from the early 1980s. As a next step towards enabling the industry to take up the realisation of the entire system, NSIL was formed a year ago. Building satellites for earth observation and navigation applications offered enough opportunities for industries and start-ups.
It was here that Mr Madhavan Nair flagged an important issue of dual-use technologies. He contended, "But, large rockets are a difficult technology to master, having sensitive dual-use applications and, hence, have to be closely guarded. Even in the US and other countries, secrecy and security norms are stringent in the launch vehicle sector."
The former ISRO Chairman alleged, and correctly so, that UPA-2 (headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) had put off important projects such as human space flight programme, semi-cryogenic engine development, and recoverable and reusable launchers. Mr Madhavan Nair said, "It was after PM Modi took over that ISRO's plans were put back on track, including approval of manned space mission. Now, ISRO is roaring ahead with full steam on the newly approved plans. This is the time in which a lot of statements are made about structural changes in ISRO. The immediate question is, what for?"
He emphasised that if the Department of Space, the Space Commission, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) were performing most efficiently, they were being headed by a carefully selected technocrat.
(It was Homi Bhabha, the founder of India's nuclear power programme, who ensured, using his proximity to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that the DAE and the AEC were not headed by an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) bureaucrat but a technocrat. Bhabha and Nehru were good friends, having hit it off. Bhabha would write letters to PM Nehru, addressing him as "Dear Bhai" and Nehru would reply, "Dear Homi". Similarly, it was ensured that it would only be a single technocrat, not an IAS bureaucrat, who would head ISRO, the Department of Space and the Space Commission. All the three - ISRO, DAE and DRDO do strategic work.)
Madhavan Nair concluded his article thus, "One cannot expect perfection in all respects. If there are specific deficiencies, they have to be analysed and fixed rather than breaking up the topmost performer, based on false claims. All the noises by a few private players and start-ups are made without understanding the Indian and global scenario. Perhaps, one wonders whether vested interests are trying to demotivate."
When Dr Sivan was asked about trusting private players with dual-use technologies in launch vehicles and satellites, he responded that IN-SPACe would have safety, security and legal directorates to monitor the use of dual technologies. Non-disclosure clauses would be included in the agreements with private players.
With reforms underway, Dr Sivan said, "India will transit into a new space era where many new start-ups will play a significant role. We are confident that India will emerge as a major player in the global space economy." Several start-ups had already "approached us", he said. Although no big player had approached ISRO so far, he was sure they would come in soon.
Dr Kiran Kumar noted, "India is among the countries which can work end-to-end in space technology. Space will play a major role in human existence. Those countries, which can make use of space technology and derive significant economic gains out of it, will win. So the Government [of India] is moving in the right direction. Of course, there are many challenges to bring it to reality."
Space is a high-risk business. Without taking risks, there will be no rewards. Will the private industries in India leap into space with their rockets and satellites?