In one of the biggest commercial orders executed till date, in October 2022, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) placed 36 satellites of a private company, OneWeb, in lower earth orbit (LEO) via LVM-3, or GSLV-Mark III, the newest addition to its fleet that is capable of lifting a load of 10 tonnes. It was a major milestone in India's ambition to tap the $37 billion upstream space market (satellite/launch vehicle manufacturing, launch services and ground control system infrastructure/operations). In an exclusive interview, Somanath S., Chairman of ISRO and Space Commission and Secretary, Department of Space, tells Fortune India how ISRO will help the private sector build India's space economy. Edited Excerpts:
Q. What does launch of 36 satellites mean for India's space economy and ISRO?
A. It is an opportunity. A global phenomenon (increasing interest in small LEO satellite constellations for communication) brought us the possibility of this launch. We were asked if we can handle this. We have demonstrated our capability. We were able to grab this contract fast and get timely government approvals. We have also got a long-term commitment for commercial exploitation (OneWeb is planning a mirror mission with same number of satellites through ISRO). This gives us an opportunity to commercialise GSLV-Mark III rocket. Now, along with PSLV, GSLV has also become a commercial service provider. This demonstrates a change in atmosphere as we are going to see more Indian engagement in global satellite constellations.
Countries like U.S., China, Russia, European Union are all in this business. Who are our competitors?
I will not call it competition. These are opportunities. You cannot compete with anybody. You cannot compete with U.S., you cannot compete with Europe. The question is whether there is an opportunity and whether we can grab it.
What is the business opportunity here?
ISRO is not a business organisation. NSIL (New Space India Ltd., ISRO's commercial arm) is the business organisation. For ISRO, such missions give opportunity to demonstrate capabilities. These are large commercial launches. France's ArianSpace is a commercial entity launching rockets at commercial rates. We are doing it as a demonstration so that the industry can take it forward. We have given PSLV to industry. We will give LVM-3 to industry. After a few launches, we (ISRO) will not be doing it (commercial launches). It will be done by the industry.
How is the industry interest?
They have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. We are the ones (slow) to respond.
ISRO has had a long-standing partnership with the industry. It has been sourcing almost every component from private vendors for decades. What has changed now?
You are talking about manufacturing partnerships. It is not the same as handing over systems to them (private industry) and asking them to do it on their own. We never allowed it before. They have been manufacturing on the basis of our design. Now, we are going to hand it over to them and say that it’s your baby, you handle it.
Will NSIL facilitate this?
Yes. NSIL is a partner in the process. They give manufacturing rights. ISRO has the skill and knowledge to handle complex rockets. And the industry has only been on the manufacturing side, not the design side. So, we (the partnership facilitated by NSIL) will help them (private sector) acquire manufacturing skills first, and then slowly make them develop design skills.
ISRO has a monopoly. Are you slowly giving it up?
We are not giving up anything. We are making them (private sector) a part of us. Suppose you join me, you learn from me, will you call it giving it up? Industry is going to partner with ISRO and we are sharing the information so that they will also grow. It is strengthening the Indian space ecosystem. We are moving away from a protectionist to an open mind. That is changing.
Commercial human space travel is something which private players in some countries are offering. Can ISRO do this?
We can, but it is not our job. It is the job of the industry. ISRO is a national agency. ISRO can develop the technology. But the practice of government funding ISRO to develop technology is going to stop. If a technology is needed, it will be developed by ISRO and industry through government-industry funding. So, now, the industry will have to put money into technology development. They have to do some R&D and develop technology.
These are dual use technologies. What will be the contribution of such partnerships in development of defence technologies?
That is not something to be discussed. You already understand that space is an important area for defence. We are working with different sets of people. The defence space agency will look into that aspect. Commercial partnerships are for civilian use technologies. Communication services exist for civilian and defence use. Same goes for remote sensing and navigation services. We have all these capabilities. All I can discuss is industry partnerships for civilian use.