By Anand Parthasarathy
April 22, 2023: In May 2020, the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX made history as the world’s first private company to send humans into Space. Just one month later, the Indian government wrote its own history by setting up an organisation -- IN-SPACE : the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre -- whose role was to enable the participation of private players in the Indian Space industry.
The Indian decision to throw open Space to private enterprise was a canny and pragmatic move aimed at seizing the initiative in a new and emerging global industrial niche where its main competitors were second generation spacefaring nations like China, France, Germany, Brazil and Japan.
Even as private Indian players came forward to leverage the new opportunity, there was some lack of clarity about the scope and extent of such non-governmental play. But after a series of consultations with and reactions from the stakeholders, a policy framework was assembled and as briefly reported by Swarajya, approved by the Union Cabinet on April 6.
Two weeks later, on April 20, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – since 1969, the nodal ( and only) agency for India’s Space-related outreaches – released the formal document titled ‘Indian Space Policy 2023’ ( read the full document here).
Its 11 pages put any residual uncertainty to rest: India is fully and without reservation, committed to open up a new frontier – Space – to all manner of private and academic participation.
It spells out the government's strategy: “encouraging and promoting greater private sector participation in the entire value chain of the Space Economy, including in the creation of space and ground-based assets.”
Private players welcomed
Such “Non-Governmental Entities” are now “allowed to undertake end-to-end activities in the space sector through establishment and operation of space objects, ground-based assets and related services, such as communication, remote sensing, navigation, etc.” In other words, private ownership and launch of space vehicles like satellites and the exploitation of any service or data created by such vehicles is encouraged.
Indeed industry has already jumped at the opportunity: On 18 November 2022 Skyroot Aerospace, a Hyderabad-based Indian private aerospace performed from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, the successful launch of its suborbital 89.5 km rocket, Vikram-S becoming the first Indian private company to reach outer space.
And in a telling illustration on March 26 of how private enterprise has already started to leverage the facilities thrown open by the government, ISRO launched 36 Low Earth Orbit or LEO satellites simultaneously for OneWeb, the Bharti Airtel-led consortium that is poised to offer satellite Internet services world-wide this year.
The launch was accomplished for OneWeb by NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL) -- a public sector undertaking under the Department of Space that, according to the new policy document, will be “responsible for commercialising space technologies and platforms… to service the space-based needs of users, whether Government entities or NGEs, on sound commercial principles.”
Another body created in June 2020 has its role clearly delineated in the policy: IN-SPACE will “act as the single window agency for the authorisation of space activities by government entities as well as NGEs.” It is “mandated to promote, hand-hold, guide and authorize space activities in the country”—and it will effectively take over many of the roles hitherto played by SRO including: the launch and operation of launch vehicles, the establishment and operation of launch pads, the planned re-entry of Space Objects, the establishment and operation of Earth Stations and satellite data reception stations as well as the dissemination of high resolution space-based earth observation data.
Between NSIL and IN-SPACE, ISRO has been effectively divested of its overarching responsibilities in the promotion, marketing and commercial exploitation of Indian Space. So what remains?
ISRO to stick to its core competence
The policy states that “ISRO as the National Space Agency, will focus primarily on research and development of new space technologies and applications… and share ( such) technologies, products, processes and best practices with NGEs and/or Government companies.”
And in a sharp change from narrow interpretations of 'free' and 'fee' in the past, the policy states unequivocally that ISRO will "make available archived satellite data and satellite derived thematic data from remote sensing satellites of ISRO on ‘free and open’ basis for further value addition and for research and development purposes, with the details of such archived remote sensing data to made known on public domain from time-to-time."
In other words, ISRO will concentrate on original research and “develop a long term road-map for sustained human presence in space”. Under the umbrella of the Department of Space, government seems to have effectively separated the innovative and long term creative responsibility, vesting this in ISRO, while the commercial and operational aspects of flights, launchpads and launch vehicles will now be overseen by more sharply focused agencies – NSIL and IN-SPACE.
Is this good or bad? Reactions are just coming in and stakeholders generally appreciate the clear delineation of who will do what, in management of the Indian Space ecosystem.
The Indian Space Association, (ISpA) the industry body which represents India-based space and satellite manufacturing companies has welcomed the policy and says it brings much needed clarity on all Space activities
Abhishek Malhotra, Managing Partner (TMT Law Practice, makes a pertinent point that the policy is not clear on whether foreign investment Indian Space will be encouraged, but he concludes: “Though there is no clear markings about FDI, it seems encouraging for foreign players to be participating through an Indian entity in the space segment”.
For over five decades, the Department of Space and its principal arm, ISRO, have conceived, executed and administered the nation’s bold reach into a New Frontier.
Now, the government seems to be telling the nodal agency, ISRO: ‘Stick to your core competence. Do what you have been great at doing. Take us to the Moon and beyond -- and don’t fritter away your energies in peripheral tasks like marketing and admin.’
In the Gita of good management, that is both timely and pragmatic.
This article has appeared in Swarajya