Flying on three wings: This decade can see India’s space odyssey be pathbreaking, for that Isro needs restructuring

This year, three Indians will be ready to go to space, an Indian satellite will ‘kiss the sun’ and a ‘mini’ rocket from the stables of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) will launch missions for other countries. On New Year’s day, Isro chairman K Sivan said that the space agency has asked the government for Rs 14,000 crore this year, as it plans to acquire 2,300 acres in Kulasekharapattinam in southern Tamil Nadu for a second spaceport after Sriharikota.

Year 2020, with 25 proposed rocket launches, will be the most ambitious year so far for Isro. This is also the right time for India to take some radical measures to make the nation’s space odyssey pathbreaking and rewarding. Here is a road map.

Isro is a mammoth organisation. Started as the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar) in 1962 with a handful of scientists led by Vikram Sarabhai, India’s space agency is today a behemoth of 20,000 employees at 15 centres (besides five autonomous centres) and 43 offices across the country.

Three years after it assumed its present name in 1969, Isro was taken out of the ambit of the department of atomic energy and a separate department of space and a space commission were created in 1972. Since then, Isro centres have proliferated, with separate mandates to work on rockets, propulsion systems, satellites, tracking and telemetry, remote sensing and much more. Fifty years later, it’s time to trifurcate the space agency.

Illustration: Ajit Ninan

One wing should focus on research and development of rockets, the second on satellites, and the third should be in the exclusive business of launching rockets and satellites. Isro, can retain its name and function as the present Isro Council that formulates Indian space programme’s vision and missions besides overseeing the three proposed wings. The 15 existing centres – and there can soon be more – doing divergent things can be grouped under three organisations depending on the nature of work they do.

Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, should helm the rocket research and development wing, with such centres as Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre in Thiruvananthapuram and Isro Propulsion Complex in Mahendragiri under it. It has been 25 years since the first successful launch of PSLV, and 19 years since the first GSLV. This means that for almost two decades we haven’t developed new rockets (though GSLV was upgraded twice and PSLV was used in different configurations). Isro is ready with the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), but we need to also develop bigger vehicles that can take up to 10 tonnes to orbit, besides making reusable launch vehicles.

UR Rao Satellite Centre, Bengaluru, should head the satellite research and development cluster, aided by such centres as Space Applications Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad, which has a proven record of developing transponders and other payloads including those for Chandrayaan-1 and Mars Orbiter Mission. Demand for satellites for communication, earth observation and defence is growing by the day and earth observation alone is expected to be a $1.6 billion market annually this decade. Besides making satellites for domestic use, India can find clients among Saarc countries and the Gulf.

The third agency, which should be in charge of rocket launches – both domestic and commercial – could be a money spinner in the long run. Antrix Corporation, the commercial wing of the department of space, has been registering an average revenue of more than Rs 2,000 crore in the past three years, but this is way below the potential of a spacefaring nation which has affordable satellite launches as its unique selling proposition. It’s time to replace Antrix. And New Space India Limited, which was launched in March 2019 as a public sector enterprise, probably to circumvent legal tangles precipitated by the Antrix-Devas scam, is not the answer. NSIL can prove its utility if it walks the talk about technology transfer and public-private partnership.

India needs a world class launch service provider that can rival Arianespace. Not many countries are blessed with geography such as India’s that gives a natural advantage when it comes to rocket launches. VSSC, Thiruvananthapuram, is situated near the magnetic equator of Earth, Sriharikota, with the Bay of Bengal on a side and a lagoon on three others – this is a rocket launcher’s paradise that offers a safe, smooth launch against the spin of the Earth (almost half of the country’s 6,100km of mainland coastline is on the east).

The proposed second spaceport at Kulasekharapattinam will have the added advantage of enabling polar satellite launches without the fuel guzzling ‘dog leg’ manoeuvre (taking a 40-degree arc) that PSLVs from Sriharikota now do to prevent overflying Sri Lanka. While parent Isro can launch the newly-developed rockets, the new company should keep its facilities at Sriharikota and Kulasekharapattinam open to just anyone across the globe to launch their rockets for a competitive price. While Isro can launch its newly developed vehicles, rocket launches of proven reliability should be passed on to the spaceport provider.

The three-winged Indian space programme would now be ready for international collaborations. India, China and Japan, along with nations of lesser space capabilities, should form an Asian Space Agency (ASA) which can eventually tie up with Nasa and ESA to take up interplanetary missions and other space projects of common global good. In space science, the age of competition is over; 2020 should mark the beginning of an era of cooperation and collaboration when India finds its rightful place under the sun – and many other stars.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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