Written by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan.
Innovation begins with vision. And the Indian leadership has always had a vision of space being for practical national development. For a newly-independent poor country such as India, this required the space programme to be innovative and cost-effective. Therefore, from the beginning, there was a focus on utilitarian aspects, such as, for example, telecommunications (because India is a vast country), for weather forecasting (because it is primarily an agricultural country), and remote sensing (because India is a resource-poor country). So, ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) began with a focus on communication satellites, the Indian national satellite (INSAT) series, which has become one of the largest domestic communication satellite systems operating in the Asia-Pacific. The launch of INSAT-B in 1983 signified a new chapter in India’s telecommunication capacity, particularly in areas such as television broadcasting, satellite news gathering, as well as in other areas such as weather forecasting, disaster warning, and search and rescue missions. Thereafter, India pushed ahead with remote sensing or earth observation satellites, which evinced interest from both regional and global customers. India maintains one of the largest remote sensing satellite systems with the launch of the CARTOSAT series, as well as the RISAT-series, Megha-Tropiques and SARAL.
…space is now an integral part to militaries around the world. India cannot afford to ignore those realities … Ignoring the new reality will cost India manifold.
India’s space technology development has been remarkable, considering that for much of the period it has been under international sanctions. India’s journey in the outer space domain has been of particular interest to many developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as they see one of their own doing what only the big established powers have achieved so far.
What is equally remarkable is how India’s innovative policies and strategies were achieved in a cost-effective manner. To cite former ISRO Chairman, Dr. K Radhakrishnan, cost-effectiveness has been India’s motto. As he put it in a recent interview: “ISRO’s general philosophy is cost-effectiveness. The Russians look for robustness and the Americans go after optimization. Our aim at ISRO was how do we get to Mars on a budget.” The cost-effectiveness of India’s space missions can be attributed to a number of factors.
One of the most important is the cost of human resources: India’s space programme pays far less for its skilled manpower than other comparable space programmes. According to a recent global survey by PayScale.com, aerospace engineers are paid a median annual salary of $9,773 in India, and while their counterparts in the United States are paid almost eight times more — $75,940. ISRO scientists also reportedly put in a lot many more man-hours for the salary that they are paid – 18-hour work schedules are fairly common in the run up to a major launch, according to some senior officials.
Another factor is the kind of payloads India launches. Smaller payloads help keep the cost down, as do limited but complimentary scientific objectives. India’s Chandrayaan-I lunar mission in 2008, for instance, was quite limited in terms of the scientific package it carried, but what it did carry complemented other similar missions by other countries, discovering the presence of water on the surface of the Moon. Therefore, India’s missions have tried to add value and more bang-for-the-buck by being selective in its objectives and complimentary to others’ efforts, without reinventing the wheel in purely prestige contests.
Another advantage has been the use of indigenous technology (as against sourcing expensive foreign systems), combined with short development cycles. Take the case of rocket engines. India acquired the technology for the Vikas rocket engine in the 1970s from France. Since then, however, India has produced 120 such engines using Indian materials and fully fabricated in Indian facilities. For each successive launch using this rocket, India has used the base of the previous, proven launch technology, and modified and built on it. Adopting a modular approach, which involves using the same basic satellite ‘bus’ but with different payloads, has given India both cost and schedule advantages. In addition, by using such tactics, the ISRO has also been able to shorten its development cycles, again reducing cost. For instance, India’s Mars mission was developed in just fifteen months.
The Mars mission is an excellent case study of ISRO’s cost-effective yet reliable mission planning and execution. There have been many comparisons made between India’s Mars and NASA’s MAVEN missions. But this is not a good comparison because the kind of complex payload MAVEN was undertaking was far superior to what ISRO planned. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was primarily a technology demonstrator and the scientific aspect of the mission was secondary. In other words, MOM is a first-time test of technology and capability, whereas Maven is primarily a scientific mission putting into use some very advanced US technology. Also since MOM’s payload was small, it could use the PSLV instead of relying on a foreign launcher which would have been quite expensive.
Moreover, the ISRO launched the Mars mission using the same PSLV-XL launch vehicle designed with a new trajectory. The MAVEN launch-cost itself (on Atlas V rocket) was $187 million. MAVEN also used a much larger device with a launch mass of over 2.5 tonnes, while Mangalyaan was only just over a tonne — meaning MAVEN needed a much larger (and more expensive) launch vehicle to get into space. Similarly, India’s Mars mission scientific payload was barely 15 kg (as against MAVEN’s 65 kg). This was less scientifically complex than others but still, it will nicely complement the NASA MAVEN and ESA’s Mars Express missions. The missions also help in gaining a better understanding of the Martian atmosphere in general, what kind of climatic conditions may have prevailed in the past and whether living organisms could survive that atmosphere. In addition, the Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer it carried could map the surface composition and mineralogy of Mars.
There is another big difference in terms of the overall approach between ISRO and NASA. Partly as a consequence of some failures with its Mars missions in September and December 1999, NASA gave up on its Faster/Better/Cheaper management for Mars. NASA now insists on extremely complicated efforts to ensure that its missions don’t fail, but this ends up making the whole effort far more expensive.
Thus, India has mastered the art of accomplishing big space missions with small budgets, which have been done by combining innovative tactics and prudence. However, it is time for India to pay attention to other aspects of its space policy, and seriously think through its future needs in outer space in a more competitive environment. Even as there are two sector-specific laws – sitcom policy and remote-sensing policy – it is time for India to outline a national level space policy that is all-encompassing. Such a policy framework must be initiated by the political leadership – the Prime Minister’s Office may be an ideal place for this. Such an all-inclusive policy framework should not be issued by the ISRO alone because then the mandate of such a policy outline will be limited to civilian and peaceful aspects of space alone. The domain of outer space has undergone significant changes in the last decade and space is now an integral part to militaries around the world. India cannot afford to ignore those realities even as it prefers outer space to be a peaceful domain. Ignoring the new reality will cost India manifold. Along with the policy architecture, India also needs to shape the necessary institutional mechanisms required to perform the growing functions of space. There have been a few baby steps, including the setting up of an Integrated Space Cell a decade ago, but India needs to pick up pace in this regard, if it is not to be left lagging behind in a critical area of national security technology.
Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She served at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India from 2003 to 2007. She tweets @raji143. Image credit: Kevin Gill/ Flickr