Shelli Brunswick is the chief operating officer of the Space Foundation, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
It was only a matter of time and effort before the world woke up to the reality of India’s space ascendancy. When the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Vikram lander made history by softly touching down on the Moon’s south pole, it was a defining moment not just for India but for all of humanity, and in the public square, there is today a broader awareness that India is a formidable space leader.
For those who have followed India’s space journey to this point, the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission was not particularly surprising. As I wrote in 2021, the nation’s space ecosystem has been approaching an inflection point, wherein decades of investment, research, sweat and tears brought India to its current space maturity. The Chandrayaan-3 mission is a perfect example of India crossing the threshold to a new era of space activity. While the August 2023 Moon landing is a shining star on India’s space lapel, Chandrayaan-3 is just one part of a larger Indian space ecosystem that is growing rapidly.
Indeed, the Moon landing was not the culmination of India’s space journey. It was simply the next step, and we should expect more activity, accomplishments and access to opportunity as India marches forward in space. To understand what is changing and why it is important for India’s trajectory, consider some of the vital ingredients in India’s space recipe that are helping it realize its grand space ambitions.
Government Demand and Space Policy
A core challenge for any spacefaring nation is connecting government demand with private sector offerings. When businesses can directly satisfy the needs of government agencies, they have a reliable revenue stream that allows them to simultaneously develop intellectual property (IP) and look for other customers in the domestic and global space markets. This has been a stubborn hurdle for India’s private space sector. As Satsearch COO Dr. Narayan Prasad told me in 2021, the two opportunities for India to break through this logjam are opening up government end users directly to the private sector and developing a procurement mechanism for acquiring private sector services and solutions.
Enter: Indian Space Policy 2023. The strategic approach is clear: “Indian consumers of space technology or services (such as communication, remote sensing, data services, launch services, etc.), whether from public or private sectors, shall be free to directly procure them from any source, whether private or public.”
The policy moves toward opening up government demand in part by standing up and defining three stakeholder organizations instrumental in connecting the dots. ISRO’s mandate is to focus on R&D and developing new technologies. NewSpace India Limited, a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU), is absorbing the operational components of ISRO’s activities, including launch vehicle assembly and integration. And the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe) serves as the interface between ISRO and non-governmental organizations. Together, these three organizations provide entry points and advocates for the Indian private space sector, in turn unlocking IP, revenue, and the potential for companies to compete in the marketplace.
To be sure, change is hard, and a new space policy does not on its own resolve the challenge.
“What I keep hearing from space startups, especially younger startups, is that IN-SPACe is dominated by leaders from the traditional contractors,” said Arpit Chaturvedi, CEO of Global Policy Insights. “The leaders don’t hear the concerns of the new startups. What happens is most startups are still working on delivering on demands for the government via ISRO.”
Still, the new space policy and delineation of responsibilities across three coordinated organizations shows that India is on a path that can open private sector opportunity to satisfy government demand.
India does not have just one indigenous launch vehicle; it has five operational with a sixth on the way. The PSLV and GSLV are reliable workhorses that have been sending items to orbit for years. A somewhat newer system, the Launch Vehicle Mark-3 (LVM3), is showing its capabilities, including sending Chandrayaan-3 on its way to the Moon.
There is an interesting development with the fourth launch system developed by ISRO, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). Designed to lift small satellites into orbit at a lower cost compared to using one of the other systems, SSLV had its first successful flight and payload deployment in February this year. And almost as soon as it was ready, the announcement came that the SSLV would be transferred to private sector control.
In addition to these systems, there are Indian companies developing private launch systems, and two in particular are ahead of the pack. Agnikul Cosmos is developing a single-stage, 3D-printed launch system, and in 2022, it opened India’s first private space launch facility. Skyroot Aerospace, meanwhile, is operating India’s first privately made launch system, the Vikram-1.
“Right now, we are the only player who had a launch, and there is one more player who may launch soon [in the Indian launch market],” said Pawan Chandana, cofounder and CEO of Skyroot. “SSLV is being transferred to a private consortium, which is a two-year process. This would lead to there being three private players and amp up the competition. This is good for all. There will be a push to enable more launches and to develop infrastructure used by everyone. There are more pros than cons.”
Ultimately, when it comes to accessing space, India’s options are many, and while an indigenous launch system is not necessarily a prerequisite for a country to lead in the global space ecosystem, the fact that India has so much lift capacity bodes well for ambitious missions and launch cadence.
Economic issues are national security issues. Because space today is appropriately viewed as critical infrastructure enabling core elements of the modern economy (e.g., telecommunications, Earth observation for agriculture), disruption to space access and operations is an economic concern and, thus, a national security priority. This is true for all spacefaring nations, but with India, the competition is close to home.
India is bordered by regional geopolitical competitors, with Pakistan to the northwest and China to the northeast. While Pakistan’s space capabilities are at best nascent, China is rapidly maturing as a space power. In 2007, much to the world’s dismay, China tested an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) and destroyed one of its weather satellites, which resulted in debris speeding dangerously in Earth’s orbit. In 2019, India’s Mission Shakti tested an anti-satellite weapon, joining the small club of nations with the capability (also including the United States and Russia).
“India definitely is joining the Quad in space,” said Chaturvedi, referring to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes the United States, Australia, Japan and India. ”Once you look at areas of defense that might seem peripheral right now, such as space or artificial intelligence, there India finds a lot of collaboration with the United States, Australia and Japan, for two reasons. First, they have capabilities, and Russia does not have those capabilities. Second, all of these nations seem to be on the opposite side from China, and that’s really what drives what India is doing. You can shroud it in the words of common values, but a lot of it is finding your friends now because this space will grow. Even the Artemis Accords favor the early birds, and India’s idea is to join that early bird club.”
The insight is that India, like its peers, is approaching space as a potentially contested, warfighting domain, as well as critical infrastructure that must be protected like any other infrastructure. India’s Defence Space Agency was created in 2018 to run national security space operations, and a recently announced initiative holds the potential to connect government needs with private sector innovation. India’s Mission Defence Space is an initiative to develop offensive and defensive space capabilities for the Indian military branches by presenting the private sector with 75 challenges for innovative solutions that satisfy defense requirements. The opportunity could be significant for growing businesses, whether because government military acquisitions are lucrative or because the resulting IP can be used to create commercial products.
Pride and Inspiration
Few things are as inspirational as bold space missions. The final moments of the Chandrayaan-3 mission were watched live by millions of people worldwide. After the success, celebration erupted across India as people took to the streets to cheer and revel in the nation’s accomplishment. The Indian Prime Minister spoke at length to the country. ISRO leaders were surrounded by reporters. Indian expats published congratulatory op-eds in news outlets globally, while world leaders released statements congratulating India and promising ongoing collaboration.
It was a moment Indians will remember, particularly the young people and students who, full of pride and confidence in opportunity, contemplate their own future in the global space community. In the moments before and after the landing, untold numbers of young Indian minds were ignited with the idea that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and space accomplishments are exciting and available to them. One small roll for the Vikram lander yielded a giant leap in the passion and fascination that can lead someone on a lifelong journey of learning and participation in the space community. This pride and wonder will serve India as it develops the space workforce that can sustain and drive its space ambition.
“With our deep competence with high cost-efficiency, there is great potential,” said Chandana. “The temperament in India is going to grow with more missions. It is a great sense of pride that in one of the hardest sectors, space, we are among the top nations. There is a lot of inspiration that flows from the fact that we have the capability to be one of the top players in a deep technology industry, like space. It will inspire kids and attract more people into STEM fields, which will help the whole sector.”
Just 10 days after the historic lunar landing, India launched the Aditya-L1 mission to study the sun. The scientific spacecraft is currently on its way to Lagrange point L1, nearly 1 million miles from Earth. Looking ahead, there is a planned IRSO science mission to Venus that could depart in late 2024. And there is growing momentum to send a crewed spacecraft into orbit as soon as 2025. These are the ambitions of an ascendant space power, and India has crossed its inflection point. Considering space policy, launch capacity, national security interests, and pride of country, India has the ingredients to pursue its space journey for the betterment of the country and people the world over.