Back in the 1960s, Thumba was a tiny fishing village on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the Indian state of Kerala. When Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the physicist and industrialist who initiated space research in India, visited the sleepy coastal village, on the trail of earth’s magnetic equator, he encountered thatched huts, coconut groves, wooden boats, and fishnets. The St. Mary Magdalene Church stood right in the middle of the 600-acre site between the railway line and the coast selected to launch the country’s first rocket into space on November 21, 1963.
The late space scientist Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was part of this launch team and who went on to become India’s 11th President, wrote in his biography: “The St. Mary Magdalene Church housed the first office of the Thumba Space Center. The prayer room was my first laboratory; the bishop’s room was my design and drawing office.”
With governments focusing on space as the next frontier for human development, the topic was widely discussed at the sixth World Government Summit (WGS) in Dubai on February 11-13, 2018, where India was the guest country.
Dr. Koppillil Radhakrishnan, the former Chairman of ISRO, under whose helm the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was launched, spoke at a session titled ‘India’s Mission to Mars’ as part of the Space Settlements Forum at WGS. He said: “Since 1963, when a French rocket took off from a tiny village in India, to today, when we have launched 238 satellites for 31 countries, including the UAE, the Indian space program has come a very long way. Through our obsession for self-reliance, we have a great constellation of satellites that cover the atmosphere, oceans, land, forestry, agriculture, and meteorology.”
Dr. Radhakrishnan said the Indian space program believes in international collaboration, and is guided by the philosophy that space research has a large role to play in the development of humanity.
Despite monumental achievements in space projects, however, India and ISRO are not the first names that come to mind in any discussion on space exploration. That honor has traditionally belonged to NASA and the former Soviet Russian space program rivalry and, in more recent years, to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This is, however, changing rapidly, as India continues to disrupt several aspects of the space industry, not the least of them being costs.
SPACE STATION CAPABILITY
ISRO is focused on conducting five launches in as many months in 2018. The space agency has also awarded a contract to Arianespace to launch the 5.7-tonne GSAT-11 satellite from the European space consortium’s spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana by June 2018. On schedule are also 15 to 18 launches a year from 2019 onwards, according to current ISRO Chairman K. Sivan, who said the agency also has the capability to set up a space station.
Keeping costs low also serves a vital commercial purpose. Antrix Corporation Ltd., ISRO’s fledgling commercial arm, is competing with giants in the USD 335.5 billion global space industry.
Two remarkable achievements by India in space research have improved its credentials in the new ‘space race’ and forced the world to sit up and take notice. The big one that convinced everyone that the Indian space program meant business was the successful Mars Orbiter Mission, named Mangalyaan (literally translating to ‘Mars Vehicle’), in 2014.
This was followed by ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) successfully carrying and deploying the 714-kg Cartosat-2 series satellite, along with 103 co-passenger satellites, into orbit around Earth on February 15, 2017 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. This has brought the number of launches by the PSLV to 51 Indian satellites and 237 belonging to customer nations and organizations.
Even the grand-daddy of space programs, NASA, had to acknowledge how impressively the Indian space program has evolved. Charles Bolden, the then Administrator at NASA, called India’s Mars mission an impressing engineering feat. He said: “We welcome India to the family of nations studying another facet of the Red Planet. We look forward to MOM adding to the knowledge the international community is gathering with the other spacecraft at Mars.”
According to ISRO, MOM is still going strong in orbit around the Red Planet. The probe is gathering data about the planet’s thin atmosphere and taking photos of its surface with the aim of learning more about Mars’ past. The space agency also announced that one of the main goals of the mission is look out for any methane that might be present in the planet’s atmosphere.
The launch of the 714-kg Cartosat-2 earth observation satellite convinced the world of the reliability of Indian rockets, and the country’s mature satellite fabrication capabilities. The basis of ISRO’s foundation was built on technological development, ‘while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration’, according to the space agency’s vision.
In a relatively short span of time, the country has emerged as a serious player in the space industry, offering low-cost and reliable services. International analysts believe that low cost is only one of the factors that make India a serious contender in space.
The country’s ability to launch multiple satellites in a single mission has also put it on firm footing in the global market. Another reason is the country’s ability to meet deadlines and the high frequency of its launches.
PARTNERSHIP WITH UAE
Speaking on the sidelines of the WSG 2018, Saeed Al Gergawi, the Mars 2117 Program Director at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, said India is well positioned to offer its expertise to the UAE, which plans to launch the Hope orbiter to Mars in 2020.
Al Gergawi said: “We’re learning a lot from the Indian experience. Firstly, we’re learning how to build the right capabilities. Secondly, something that personally delighted and inspired me is the picture of the control room of ISRO in India, where there are a lot of women in saris (traditional Indian women’s wear) who are scientists and the collective minds behind India’s successful Mars mission.” The program director says that this image banishes the stereotypical view that only men are part of complex space projects.
Women play a strong role in the Emirates Mars Mission, starting at the top with H.E. Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri, UAE Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and the head of the Emirates Mars Mission Science Team at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center. About half the team working on the Mars project comprises women.
“We share the same value system with India, especially in terms of what we can bring back to Earth that would benefit humanity. Cost-efficiency is a very small aspect of why we are collaborating with India for space projects. Like India, we want more Emirati women in space research and STEM projects,” Al Gergawi added. Geographical proximity between the countries is another positive factor.
Some of the other possible areas of cooperation include satellite navigation and sounding rockets. ISRO has also provided a report to the Arab Civil Aviation Commission on the possibility of using Gagan (GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation) satellite navigation services in the region.
Globally, the US, Russia, and France dominate nearly 75 per cent of the USD 6 billion satellite launch industry, a market in which India hopes to increase its share. The country’s space economics include launching satellites ranging from a few kilos to ones weighing hundreds of kilos.
According to the Satellite Industry Association, in a multi-billion-dollar industry, India has a share of just above 0.5 per cent, while China owns 3 per cent of the market. Analysts suggest that this too could be a reason why India would want to aggressively move into the launch market.
The increasing demand for launches is growing worldwide, primarily since new companies are planning to launch entire commercial constellations, or groups, of satellites. “In this case, a single company might need to launch anything between 24 to 648 satellites,” says Susmita Mohanty, Chief Executive of Earth2Orbit, a company that has been helping negotiate launch deals between ISRO and private companies.
In the past, India was unable to attract customers for their satellite launches primarily due to launch vehicle constraints, making the country dependent on France for its launches. Given ISRO’s recent achievements, that is now a thing of the past.
The country is also home to the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), Asia’s first space university, established at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala in 2007. The objective is to deliver high-quality education in space science and technology to meet the demands of the Indian space program.
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya, rocket scientist and co-founder of Astropreneurs HUB, speaking on the sidelines of a session titled ‘Are Humans Necessary for Exploration?’ at the WGS 2018, said: “In 20 years, India’s achievements in space entrepreneurship have been phenomenal.” She credits ‘reverse brain drain’ as one of the reasons for its steep growth. “I see India as a huge talent pool for space technology. The level of STEM capacity and interest in space is remarkable. Space research is also part of India’s national identity,” she said.
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