Bengaluru: From the outside, there’s hardly anything about Bengaluru-based Axiom Research Labs Pvt. Ltd to indicate that this is India’s only private company to have set its eyes on landing a spacecraft on the moon before the end of next year.
The entrance, for one, is protected by plain white metal gates. Moreover, the entire building is a flat structure with no satellites, domes, images of astronauts, spacecraft or rovers that one is accustomed to seeing at institutions which deal with space such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).
However, once you step inside the gates, a different story unfolds.
You will notice words like “Spacecraft”, “Stratospheric Platforms”, “Satellites”, “Bhaskara Block”, “Aryabhatta Block” and “CV Raman Block” written on plates in the courtyard and on the sides of the building.
You may spot a rover prototype in the corner of a room. Your eyes may also catch a drawing of a spacecraft on one of the walls of the room with numerical details of “tanks”, “thrusters”, “on-board computers”, “solar reflectors”, and “sensors”—all signs which indicate that those who work here are very serious about space.
Regardless of the picture you draw from the outside, the fact is that Axiom Research Labs employs nearly 85 engineers and about 12 retired Isro scientists who are part of TeamIndus—the only team from India to qualify for the Google Lunar XPrize.
How it all began
It’s not that Rahul Narayan, founder of Axiom Research Labs and head of TeamIndus, dreamt of exploring space all his life. He graduated around the time India was opening up its economy (1991). “That was an interesting time for one to let go of inhibitions and imagining something that was not mainstream,” he says.
Narayan began by launching his own software and services products firm—it was called Radiance Networks, which “morphed into another company called Agnicient that I continue to run (as chief operating officer)”. His role at Agnicient Technologies often required him to videoconference, besides visiting his customers in the US and UK.
It was during one such “videoconferencing call with an American customer who was working with another Google XPrize team” that Narayan got his eureka moment—the idea to set up a team from India to take up this challenge.
The competition and tagline “Moon 2.0” of the Google XPrize caught Narayan’s attention. “I wanted to find out more about it. I looked up the website. There were about 10 teams—some high up there but also some who were ordinary but wanted to follow their dreams. I looked around and said ‘Wow’. Shouldn’t a team from India be part of it?” he says.
The last day of the competition was 31 December 2010, and there wasn’t a single India team. Google asked Narayan if he and his colleagues were interested, and if they could quickly put together a team.
Consequently, “a bunch of folks with absolutely no background in aerospace got into this programme to see how it plays out. It wasn’t a hollow bet, though, because we had to pay an upfront sum of $50,000 to register”, recalls Narayan, who is a computer science graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, and calls himself the Fleet Commander of TeamIndus.
“In fact, if I had a background in aeronautics, I would not have picked up this project. It’s the whole rookie problem—getting solutions when you look at problems,” adds Narayan.
Seeking a hand from space
The past five years haven’t been easy for Narayan. The first year went by on trying to figure out where to start. “There were questions like—what’s the budget; who is going to help you build this; what do you build; and how do you build it? Do you build something small and efficient? Or do you build something large and very bombastic,” he recounts.
Narayan and his team started digging in their heels to figure out how to go about the task that was “very intimidating”. “We put up pages on Twitter and Facebook, etc. We had people asking questions like: “Have you figured out your S-Band frequencies for telemetry and tracking?” he recalls. At that time, Narayan could not understand any of this vocabulary other than the words “what” and “frequencies”. Rest of it was Greek and Latin to him.
Narayan realized he would need help from an experienced person in the aerospace industry. The name that came to mind was Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan—an Indian space scientist who headed Isro from 1994 to 2003. He was also a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission. Narayan did not expect an answer, but nevertheless he wrote to the former Isro chief’s office seeking an appointment. He was pleasantly surprised to be granted “half an hour”.
Narayan landed up at Kasturirangan’s office with a 10-member team. The meeting went off much better than he had anticipated. “Dr Kasturirangan sat with us for close to two hours. He listened intently, and hardly asked any question for the first half hour. He kept saying ‘Yes’ to our every request—‘Sir (referring to Kasturirangan). Do you have more time?’ ‘Sir. Is this OK? Can we give you more details?’ ‘Sir. This is a printout. Will you read it?’ Then, he became engaged when we began presenting the details since he must have seen merit in our details,” recounts Narayan.
Kasturirangan assured Narayan and his team that he would help them with technology inputs “as and when time permitted”. He also introduced TeamIndus members to Isro, which lent them credibility, “since they (Isro) get all types of cranky emails”.
Narayan vividly recalls asking Kasturirangan why Isro would be interested in the project of TeamIndus. He recalls Kasturirangan saying: “You (TeamIndus) are the outcome of Isro. Bengaluru is a tech town because of what Isro does. Hence, Isro should be proud of what you’re doing simply because this is the first time that you are coming up with an end-to-end machine.”
Encouraged by Kasturirangan’s response, TeamIndus made presentations to Isro around the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, and “we were completely blown away with how receptive they were about our ideas”, Narayan recalls. “Today, even I laugh at what we presented to Isro but we were on the right track.”
Experience meets passion
Subsequently, TeamIndus inducted a few advisers who had retired from Isro to help them. The first thing they figured out was how to go from the earth to the moon. “We were able to learn from Isro about engineering and legal compliance,” says Narayan.
“Then we began getting some retired Isro scientists as advisers about two-three times a week. Since this meant spending a lot of time in Bengaluru, we shifted our headquarters there from New Delhi in early 2013,” he says.
The move to Bengaluru proved to be good. TeamIndus now had access to a bigger pool of experts. “We were also able to hire better talent since there are many aerospace companies in Bengaluru. This was a great move. We grew to 20-odd people,” says Narayan.
Today, TeamIndus has around 100 employees. These are “the square pegs that would not fit into the round holes”, says Narayan. TeamIndus also hired a lot of engineers who interned with them.
Sheelika Ravishankar, the people lead at TeamIndus, concurs: “We have folks who have paid up their bonds in their respective companies and settled for lower-paying jobs with us.”
She admits, though, that sustaining this trend is more challenging. To address the issue, TeamIndus has inducted 12 retired Isro scientists who have the “hands-on experience that none of our engineers have”. About 80 of the company’s employees are around 25 years of age on average; the 12 retired Isro scientists are between 65 and 70 years of age.
The retired Isro scientists are called “sages” while the youngsters are called “warriors”. “They (the sages and warriors) can mix their talents to get this mission accomplished,” says Ravishankar, insisting that this is a big incentive “for graduates to come and work with some of the greatest minds in India”.
P.S. Nair, TeamIndus Jedi Commander (Structures), retired from Isro at the age of 66. A PhD in aeronautics from the Indian Institute of Science, Nair points out that “...unfortunately, not much high-tech work has seeped outside government agencies”.
Nair joined TeamIndus because “it is an investment in the industry which you can use for interplanetary and satellite missions. It will help this company build expertise in space, which till now is confined to agencies like Isro. The advantage is youngsters who are amenable to trying out new things. It is a very unique opportunity for the country to get the private sector involved in high-tech”.
P. Natarajan, TeamIndus Jedi Commander (Flight Dynamics Systems), who retired from Isro last year, agrees. He heads the navigation guidance and control group—basically the response for altitude control after the ejection of the spacecraft into the orbit. “They (the younger TeamIndus employees) are mostly just out of college with bachelor’s and master’s degree. We have to give them direction because we have to impart practical education,” says Natarajan.
According to Ravishankar, TeamIndus’s younger employees love this environment. “It is a huge attraction, not only to learn from them (the retired Isro scientists). I could be arguing with a learned scientist on the same table but if my point is valid, it will be accepted. The non-hierarchy and meritocracy of ideas—anything that will help in the growth of the organization is the biggest incentive,” she says.
Till even a few months back, all TeamIndus employees used to start every morning with a “Stand-Up”. Everyone gets together to give updates and highlights, besides point out bottlenecks and solving the issue directly with the team member responsible for the delay. Now they do this exercise once a week. With 100-odd employees, “we are a little more process driven, else it would be mayhem”, Ravishankar acknowledges.
Those who have worked with TeamIndus for two years or more typically get to work across units. Vishal Vatsal, 27, for instance, initially worked on the Lunar descent part of the project, progressed into navigation and altitude control. He is now part of system engineering.
Moreover, because TeamIndus is a start-up, even freshers who are called Ninjas get to see the moon mission in its totality. “You can work across units—you can build a rover, you can work on propulsion,” says Ravishankar.
Consider the case of Nitish Kumar Singh, 25. He has been with TeamIndus for two-and-a-half years. It is his first job. “I did an internship with this company when in college and found it very exciting,” says this BTech and Masters in Aerospace Engineering from IIT Kharagpur. Singh began by working on the Lunar descent part of the project—working on a specific image-processing algorithm—and is now a part of the mission operations unit of TeamIndus.
There are other youngsters like Vatsal who has been working with the Flight Dynamics team for over three years, and “designs algorithms that will guide the spacecraft through orbits and the Lunar descent”. He is an MTech from IIT Kanpur.
Paras Kaushal, 25, who did his engineering from Punjab university, joined in May 2014. He looks after the thermal control systems that include thermal hardware for the protection of the spacecraft from cold and hot extremities. While Vatsal and Singh are designated as “Jedi Troopers”, Kaushal is a “Skywalker”.
Building a sustainable business model
Other than building a good company, hiring the best resources and just “doing the best you can”, there was the “other big question of raising money”.
In 2014, TeamIndus signed up a set of partners like Larsen and Toubro Ltd, Tata Communications Ltd and Sasken Communication Technologies Ltd “who went out of their way to provide us with services, infrastructure, introduction with people and other things”, says Narayan.
It was at this juncture that TeamIndus also did a seeded investment, led by including Infosys Ltd co-founder and Aadhaar architect Nandan Nilekani, and chairman, managing director and CEO of Sasken Communication Technologies, Rajiv Mody, and “a whole bunch of entrepreneurs—about 60 of them”.
“TeamIndus”, according to Mody, “is a bold statement of what India’s potential is in areas of science and technology—a much ignored aspect in our society. A success here will uplift the entire nation. I have total confidence in the capability, confidence and passion of TeamIndus, which is the only thing required to make this mission successful. It would be a disservice not to back such an initiative.”
Around this time, TeamIndus also doubled its workforce—from about 20 to 40. They had won the $1 million from the Milestone Prize and raised about $2 million from investors. The question facing Narayan was: “Can we take this IP (intellectual property) and convert it into a sustainable business model?”
“You just cannot shut down a company with so many people after you conclude a project,” Narayan says, adding that keeping this in mind, TeamIndus started two programmes in early 2015.
These are small groups. The first one—the Sat Plus programme—aims at commoditizing satellite manufacturing. TeamIndus, according to Narayan, is building a 150kg class satellite which can be literally sold of the shelves for anyone who wants to fly a satellite. “As electronics have improved, the mass of a satellite has come down. So a 150kg satellite can fly up to 50kg of payload in the Earth’s lower orbit,” he says.
The second programme is a Long Endurance Aerial Platform. These are solar-powered planes which can take off and stay in the sky for long.
“One part of the value creation is that this mission itself has a commercial angle to it—some money we will raise through equity and some through branding and some through payload sales. We have payload space on our spacecraft (lander) and we plan to sell this commercially, potentially to other Google Lunar XPrize teams, to other scientific institutions and universities who might have a payload that they want to fly to the moon,” says Narayan.
In fact, if it is successful in landing its spacecraft on the moon, TeamIndus will also manage to land a small payload (the size of a can—about 250g) as part of its Lab2Moon project (Also Read: Whose project will fly to moon with TeamIndus? ), which is a competition to select the best payload from youngsters below 25 years of age.
…but raising funds remains a challenge
TeamIndus has to raise and spend (in instalments) about $65 million by the end of next year. Most of the money is being spent largely on building the spacecraft since the components are very expensive.
TeamIndus members have been reaching out to schools and companies to create awareness. At times, companies ask them to speak to their internal teams to motivate them—how to work on tight deadlines; how to keep the team integrated. Some companies have also evinced interest in sponsoring the project—for example, put a logo on the spacecraft or on the images that come out of the mission.
“We are finalizing our branding and marketing strategies and will soon announce them. We are not looking out for a title sponsor—we are clear about this. But we are surely looking at non-competing companies across sectors. We do not hard sell,” says Narayan.
“Anyone who wants to see the Indian tricolour on the moon will love this. In India, we typically encourage regular folks to become heroes. That makes this resonate with companies,” adds Ravishankar, the people lead.
The company’s “big marketing campaign will be launched in the next couple of months. We will do a big crowdfunding initiative too and make it as inclusive as possible”, she adds without giving details.
Readying for the war mode
Nair acknowledges that landing the spacecraft on the moon “is not easy—there are many technology hurdles, scheduling hurdles, funds crunch, and lack of facilities”.
“Even Isro has not landed a spacecraft on the moon till date (Isro has sent satellites to the moon and mars but never soft-landed). Hence, there are many unknowns. We have to take risks based on our engineering expertise. This (spacecraft) is a simplified, compact satellite that can be launched on the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). We have optimized this spacecraft using the PSLV launcher—hence, you have to compromise on complexities and redundancies,” adds Nair.
TeamIndus is in the “last stages to get the PSLV from Isro but it will be a commercial deal”, says Ravishankar.
Nair, the structures commander, also cautions that TeamIndus has to work in “a war mode till the launch stage. We still have to fully get into this mode. It is very difficult to get satellite time for testing. We have the expertise. Isro has no secrets—we have the experience. Axiom is lucky to catch that mix of experience. I mentor many youngsters. This group is very enthusiastic and dedicated. But they still need to do the dirty part of the job—everything is not glamourous in engineering. Design is easy but testing and implementation holds the key”.
To land on the moon softly, for instance, the touchdown velocity has to be almost zero—from 1.64 km/sec, points out Natarajan, the flight dynamics systems commander. “The challenge is that the fuel is limited. Each and every drop has to be spent judiciously. Adding more tanks will increase the weight of the spacecraft, which is not advisable because it consumes more fuel as the mass of the spacecraft increases,” he adds.
Moreover, the system has many complex algorithms, and the number of paths on which this software has to be tested, makes the “testing requirement, enormous. That’s a bit of a concern. We have not built redundancies”, he says. For instance, TeamIndus does has a gyro sensor for altitude. If that fails, the whole mission fails. “Since it’s a short mission, we are not accounting for any failures,” Natarajan points out.
Nair concludes on a positive note: “Even if we don’t succeed, Axiom Labs will have a strong hold on this technology which even Isro and Nasa have taken decades to master.” Narayan and TeamIndus nod their heads in agreement.