On Wednesday, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) announced it had successfully launched four satellites weighing 1,042.6kg aboard its workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket. The most prominent of these is the 1-tonne Megha-Tropiques Indo-French satellite for climate research in the tropics. Equally interesting are the two satellites built almost entirely by teams of Indian engineering students: the 10.9kg SRMSAT built by the students of SRM University near Chennai, and Jugnu, a 3kg satellite by students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur. While it could well be inferred that the future of Indian space science is in safe innovative hands, such a conclusion may be premature.
In the future, the race to space will be driven by private companies. Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Starchaser Industries are among the many big names of tomorrow when commercial space flight will become more common and affordable than its current $200,000 price tag. Unlike the flying zeppelins of the early 20th century, which predated commercial aircraft, it might not even be 50 years before such a flight becomes routine.
If India aims to stay relevant in the age of space commercialization, space entrepreneurship—along with space science and engineering—has to be a prerequisite for future space scientists. After being embroiled in a stray controversy over leasing out spectrum for commercial purposes, Isro’s real problems, it turned out, were the lack of transparency and confusion over dividing the commercial and research wings of the department. Though Antrix, Isro’s commercial wing, began functioning in the 1990s, it is still not a force to be reckoned with in the international satellite launch industry. This is partly due to the non-existent private Indian space industry, something that is, in turn, due to the limited growth of Indian high-technology commercial industries.
While the US has already passed laws announcing Nasa’s eventual withdrawal from commercial space launches, India is yet to publicize—let alone clarify—a clear policy on the use of satellite spectrum. Unless Isro, Antrix and the government buck up, India’s aspirations to be a space superpower may well turn out to be a repeat of its failed dream of the 1980s to become the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturer.
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