Truth about change is being played out in space technology and industry in India

Tapan Misra

The old order changeth yielding place to new – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

To unleash animal power of bright young men and women, India needs urgent and deft response in opening up policy frameworks and encouraging large financial institutions to employ their muscles in Indian venture capital ecosystem.

Change is the only certainty. On last Sunday, 23rd January, I participated in a panel discussion virtually at IIT Hyderabad on the interesting hot topic of Rise of Commercial Space Age in India. Truth about change is being played out in space technology and industry in India. Having played a small role in the process, I was excited to interact with the budding stars in the emerging space. They were Naga Bharath Daka of Skyroot Aerospace, Suyas Singh of GalaxEye, Kranthi Chand of Dhruva Space. They represented the baby steps in three major verticals of space technology, namely launcher, satellite and payload.

The panel discussion was ably moderated by Saket Singh Kaurav of Regional Science Centre, Bhopal. IIT Hyderabad and its student team, led by Shashank shanbag, deserve accolade for organising a discussion on this emerging topic, probably for the first time, by any academic institution.

Private initiatives in space Industry is no longer remaining in the realms of policy statements by the Government and DOS Czars. Skyroot tested their small digitally printed cryogenic engine in end November 2021. The small steps announced boldly that start up initiatives in space are here to stay and there is no looking back.

Let us draw our attention to certain stark reality, lest we do not hide ourselves behind complacency. India contributes only 0.4% of 360 Bn US$ global business of space (2019 data). If we set our target of cornering 5% of space business in 5 years, a target equivalent to building industry of the scale of Indian Railways, both in terms of turnover and employment, the present fledgling initiatives of start ups falls woefully short.

To unleash animal power of bright young men and women, India needs urgent and deft response in opening up policy frameworks and encouraging large financial institutions to employ their muscles in Indian venture capital ecosystem.

Though we are seeing great interest in main stream or upper stream space Industry, let us not forget that almost 70% of global revenue accrues from down stream business in ground equipment, communication and remote sensing services. I expected that there will be gatecrash in investment in picking low hanging fruits. However, investors and entrepreneurs are missing the great opportunity by turning away with misconceived notion of glamour in technology. In fact, ISRO made the same mistakes and today they have reduced themselves from monopoly to competing against nimble footed competitors for their relevance and survival.

Make in India is a great initiative. It ensures large local employment and improving the skill set. This path ensures local fabrication of low and moderate technology components, but depends heavily on import of key and high technology components to integrate and realise the final product. But this approach does not ensure getting mastery of technology and related innovations. The net result is that we remain continuous laggard in building technology and industry of future. Classic example is our software industry. In spite of their great contribution in our economy and job market, we are yet to build a branded software or operating system, reducing our opportunity of reaping a bonanza of harvest. Similar is our experience in aircraft manufacturing. Though we are assembling 3rd and 4th generation aircrafts, we are yet to build our own fighter or passenger aircrafts of similar class. Our own single engine fighter aircraft Tejas, though a creditable product, took four decades to mature. At this time scale, we are guaranteed to be dependent on foreign aircrafts at exorbitant price for decades to come. Further, Make in India approach makes our industry vulnerable to inimical changes in global political equations and sudden paradigm shift in technology innovations.

The panacea for the above mentioned disadvantages is Made in India approach, where we invest in mastering the technology in India through our own innovations. I will suggest that if we want to be long term players and leaders of future space Industry, we should aim for this approach. I know the efforts will be high, results will be slow to start with. But once innovations get ingrained in our culture, there is no looking back.

Unfortunately, venture funds will prefer the Make in India approach as they want quick and assured return on their investments. The government policies and financial institutions need to encourage patient venture funding, ready to aim for long term bonanza from deep tech investment in Made in India aporoach.

The biggest psychological hindrance to VCs and Angel investors in funding Space Tech is the perception that space technology is a difficult technology and cost intensive. From my experiences of 35+ years in the field, I can vouch that space technology is no “Rocket Science”, a notion cleverly spread by practitioners themselves to hike their own valuations in the industry and society. The key to almost zero defect space technology is the simplicity of thought process and great innovation in simple mechanisms and designs to achieve stunningly complex task. My experience tells me that rarely a component or hardware fails in space. If we analyse failures, the onus, more often than not, lies at the doorstep of the designer and lack of proper planning and thought process behind that hardware or software component.

Globally, software industry progressed by leaps and bounds. But hardware industry is yet to see the progress to this scale. My understanding is that, the software industry built a culture of cooperation. No sooner an algorithm or OS or software or a language or an API or an App is developed, it is available to developers worldwide, widely and free of cost to build on them. Unnecessary efforts are not wasted in reinventing wheels. Our fledgling space Industry should learn the lessons from software industry. They should built a culture of great competition, but greater cooperation and sharing and much lesser mistrust to usher in booming of innovation ecosystem, to propel the industry to global leadership.

Being fortunate enough to be rooted in India, I have confidence on ingenuity of Indian minds to chart their own course instead of getting misled into beaten path. More I meet our budding entrepreneurs with their eyes fixed on stars, my conviction only grows.

Tapan Misra is a distinguished scientist, who has been Director of Space Application Centre and Advisor in the Department of Space. He has contributed i.mensely to India’s space programme and can be called the father of Synthetic Aperture Radar SAR, a technology that is at the core of the joint NASA- ISRO NISAR programme.

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